Julie Schumacher has published two novels about academic life, Dear Committee Members (2014) and The Shakespeare Requirement (2018), with a third in the series, The English Experience due out in August. The first two novels are campus farces featuring the eccentric professor of creative writing Jason Fitger who received his job and tenure at the small midwestern Payne College on the strength of literary novels years ago, though his most recent novel The Transfer of Affection both flopped and precipitated his divorce. Now he remains embedded in Payne, laboring away in a deeply dysfunctional department.
And to begin this recommendation on the proper footing: no, I will not fill out the inane computerized form that is intended to precede or supplant this letter; ranking a student according to his or her placement among the “top 10 percent,” “top 2 percent,” or the “top 0.000001 percent” is pointless and absurd. No faculty member will rank any student, no matter how severely lacking in ability or reason, below “top 10 percent.” This would be tantamount to describing the candidate in question as a witless beast. A human being and his or her caliber, intellect, character, and promise are not reducible to a check mark in a box. Faced with a reductionist formula such as yours, I despair for the future, consoling myself with the thought that I and others of my generation, with its archaic modes of discourse, won’t live to see the barren cyberworld the authors of your recommendation form are determined to create.Dear Committee Members
Dear Committee Members unfolds over a single academic year, as told through the recommendation letters of one Jason Fitger. Professor Fitger writes a lot of recommendation letters, and takes great pride in the genre. Perhaps too much pride. Each of the letters he writes does indeed recommend the candidate for positions that range from jobs to graduate schools to administrative positions on campus. But these letters also contain flourishes that let the recipient know exactly what he, Jason Fitger M.F.A., thinks of them, their position, and the whole academic apparatus. Invariably, this commentary also means that the letters often wander into an ongoing one-sided dialogue between Fitger and his silent interlocutors such as his current department chair (a Sociologist imposed on the department), his ex-girlfriend Carole Samarkind (the associate director of Student Services at Payne), his ex-wife Janet Matthias, who he met at a prestigious writing Seminar and now is an administrator in the law school at Payne, and Eleanor Acton, their former classmate and now director of the Seminar from whom he is attempting to secure a position for his mentee Darren Browles.
Fitgers commentary traces the contours of an academic year, and the absurdity of the whole system—including letters of recommendation—is deeply familiar to anyone who has worked in it. Indeed, these are the letters of recommendation I wish I could write. Further, Schumacher offers cutting commentary about the state of the contemporary university.
Iris Temple has applied to your MFA program in fiction and has asked me to support, via this LOR, her application. I find this difficult to do, not because Ms. Temple is unqualified (she is a gifted and disciplined writer and has published several stories in appropriately obscure venues), but because your program at Torreforde State offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind—an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students, to whom you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.Dear Committee Members
But Schumacher cuts the comedy of Jason Fitger the difficult and absurd colleague always kvetching about something or another by making it clear that is nevertheless deeply cares about his students and will go to great lengths to help them succeed. This character trait likewise adds emotional weight to a dark plot line about the declining emotional state of Darren Browles reflected through Fitger’s futile efforts to save him.
The Shakespeare Requirement picks up the following academic year, with Jason Fitger, the creative writing professor with a lowly MFA, now at the helm of Payne University’s English Department, his colleagues grudgingly voting for him at the end of Dear Committee Members.
This novel has functionally three core plot threads.
The first follows Dennis Cassovan, aging professor of Shakespeare who loathes that while he was on sabbatical his colleagues burdened the department with Fitger, a mediocre novelist and non-scholar. What’s more, administration is requiring a “vision statement” for the department and there is a chance that that vision might exclude the Bard himself. Cassovan objects, strenuously, and the cause is taken up by his long-suffering research assistant Lincoln, who makes Shakespeare a cause célèbre on campus—much to his annoyance—after the poster on Cassovan’s door is vandalized.
Here was the future, Cassovan thought. Out with considered argument and nuance; in with publicity students, competitive righteousness, and the thrill of rage.
The second follows Angela Vackrey, a timid but promising student from a small, conservative town whose work attracts the attention of both Fitger and Cassovan. However, both men are too preoccupied with administrative and faculty issues to offer her much mentorship, and Angela finds herself adrift without any close friends at college. In part, this is how she finds herself pregnant after a single sexual experience with a boy from her Bible study. Surely this means that she must marry him?
Finally, there is Fitger himself. I am very fortunate to be in a department with an exceptionally competent chair—so much so that last year the department joked that our reappointment vote was to prevent her from stepping down. Jason Fitger is the opposite of that: a roiling mess of disorganization and impolitic observations with barely any sense of the levers of power within an academic institution. To make matters worse, his ex-wife Janet Matthias is dating the Dean who signs off on the department paperwork and Roland Gladwell, the chair of the well-resourced Economics department, is staging a hostile takeover of their shared building. Oh, and campus newspaper has run a series of articles condemning Fitger’s “Literature of the Apocalypse” course as traumatic.
The students, who have requested anonymity, claim that the reading list for the fall class—on the “Literature of the Apocalypse”—was detrimental to their mental health and “psychologically hostile.” One of the students has reported consulted a family lawyer.
Sophomore Yvetta Curtin, who was not enrolled in the class but had seen a copy of the syllabus, suggested that the selection of novels was “irresponsible” and could be dangerous for students with emotional issues or PTSD.
Fitger’s only hope may lay in the person of the department secretary, Fran, who miraculously keeps the department moving forward despite its lack of a budget. The problem is that in order to have a budget, the department must have a vision statement and, thanks to Roland’s meddling, the department must approve the statement unanimously. But Fitger will get the statement approved over Cassovan’s dead body unless it includes requires that all English majors take a Shakespeare class.
The Shakespeare Requirement retains a similar tone to the Dear Committee Members, but dispatching with the epistolary format allows Schumacher to offer wider perspective on the campus culture of Payne. Schumacher treats Payne as an every-college. The humanities are underfunded, numerous students apathetic or overwhelmed, and administrators out of touch with the practice of teaching. The hubbub about students not even in the class being outraged by Fitger’s literature of the apocalypse class might as well be a campus culture wars headline about Schumacher’s alma mater Oberlin. While some of these caricatures wore a little thin at times, I found that the wider perspective made the campus satire hit somewhat closer to home for better and for worse. Where Fitger’s (failed) romantic partnerships and his (doomed) attempt to save his mentee form the core plots of Dear Committee Members, The Shakespeare Requirement follows a protracted war over the future of the school. Victory might hinge on the silliest of factors in the novel, but the fight itself is all-too real.
Education was expensive and inefficient; teaching students to think and write clearly was the same. But Hoffman, a business school graduate with the singe-cell mind of a banker, had never taught anyone anything. Her ultimate plan would be to organize the campus into two simple units: “Numbers” and “Words.”The Shakespeare Requirement
I am a big fan of both of these novels. They are fun, light reads filled with sweeping caricatures and clever turns of phrase, but with some of the darker—and altogether human—crises of higher education hovering just beneath the surface. The comic sub-genre of campus novel is to the best of my knowledge not extensive, and the genre writ-large tends to focus on character or coming of age stories. This makes it almost inevitable that Schumacher’s books would be compared to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, which I particularly disliked. Schumacher populates her books with quirky and sometimes bad or unlikable characters, she avoids the meanness and myopia that I found in Lucky Jim. Schumacher makes it clear that however difficult and disoriented Fitger becomes, he legitimately trying and some of his most dramatic failures come from the best intentions—something that seems likely to have been drawn from experience in academia.
This semester got away from me and I’m not sure which of my recent reads will receive profiles here. I am currently reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.