Dear Committee Members is a book for anyone who has ever taught at, studied at, or been within five miles of a university. The latest novel by writer (and University of Minnesota faculty member) Julie Schumacher, it chronicles a year in the life of Jay Fitger, a professor of creative writing at a (fictional) small research college. Like their real-life counterparts, Payne University’s administrators are seeking to cut costs in some areas in order to spend lavishly in others. Unfortunately for Prof. Fitger, the posh digs provided to lucrative programs, the extravagant amenities designed to lure in unsuspecting undergraduates, and the (one assumes) well-padded pockets of the administrators themselves come at the expense of the English Department, which has had its budget repeatedly slashed and is currently being chaired by a sociologist. To add insult to injury, the building that houses the department is currently undergoing renovations for the benefit of the economics faculty, who have been evacuated until the restoration is finished. Not so the English faculty, and the warning about “particulate matter” leads Fitger to playfully hypothesize that “the deanery is annoyed with [the English faculty’s] request for parity and, weary of waiting for [them] to retire, has decided to kill [them].”
Fitger’s—or, rather, Schumacher’s—ability to home in on the problems that plague modern universities is uncanny; the observations are merciless, hilarious, and spot on. Special mention must be given, though, to the fact that Schumacher does not shy away from drawing attention to (that is to say, mocking) the counterproductive ways in which college faculties tend to respond to administrative meddling. For example, in a letter recommending the English department’s “associate administrator” for a new position, Fitger describes the departmental infighting as follows:
Poor Ms. Frame is too discreet an employee to reveal the particular absurdity or humiliation that tipped the scales and persuaded her to seek reassignment: it might have been the fisticuffs in the lounge over the issue of undergraduate curriculum, or the faculty meeting (Ms. Frame faithfully taking minutes) during which a senior colleague, out of his mind over the issue of punctuation in the department’s mission statement, threatened to “take a dump” (there was a pun on the word “colon” which I won’t belabor here) at a junior faculty member’s door.
In the midst of all this, Fitger soldiers haplessly on—at least, in a manner of speaking. Though he himself seems to have largely abandoned any prospect of academic or personal fulfillment in the wake of several failed novels and relationships, he wages a tireless campaign on behalf of the humanities through a series of letters he writes during the 2009-2010 academic year.
Fitger is, admittedly, an imperfect martyr. Though his letters do uphold a kind of moral code—one characterized by what is in many ways a refreshingly old-fashioned reverence for aesthetic pursuits over and apart from their social and/or political implications—they also reveal Fitger to be, variously, petty, manipulative, and self-deluded. In particular, his attempts to secure funding for his graduate student Darren Browles are continuously marred by his own inability to maintain a stable relationship and his propensity to blame everyone but himself for his own actions. When it emerges, for example, that the reluctance of the head of the Bentham Literary Residence Program to award a residency to Browles may stem in part from an ill-fated tryst she and Fitger had during graduate school, Fitger complains to another former classmate: “Eleanor goaded and disliked me even before she slept with me. She used to call me Jay the Obtuse, and when Reg [Fitger’s advisor] noticed the animosity between us he began subtly to urge me to see her as the prototype for George Fitzgerald’s libidinous antagonist, Esther, in Stain.” It is hard, looking at such passages, not to see a touch of the misogyny that Eleanor herself apparently complains of. Besides, reading between the lines of many rejections, one also begins to suspect that Fitger’s star pupil may not be quite so talented as Fitger insists.
For all that, though, there is something genuinely touching—even inspirational—about Fitger’s willingness to go to bat for similarly harassed colleagues. Witness, for example, Fitger’s reaction when a professor in the recently dismantled Slavic Languages Department is predictably passed over for a promotion:
What would you ask of Pazmentalyi? The reason for denial of his promotion was “narrow scope of research/limited field.” Good lord: he’s a scholar of Slavic languages—fluent in nearly a dozen—do you want him to coach the volleyball team? Pazmentalyi is not versatile or charming. He doesn’t tell jokes during class. And he won’t fight your refusal of his promotion because—brace yourself—he isn’t suited for any other job, and he knows it. Very few people read his work; fewer comprehend it. Your office’s stated desire for greater “scope” and “accessibility” (would you have Stephen Hawking go back to the nine times table?) will end up turning scholars like Pazmentalyi into TV hosts, forced to incorporate online dating options into seminars previously dedicated to European linguistics…
Writing this letter has thoroughly depressed me, but it hasn’t made me less determined to see Pazmentalyi promoted. You want to sweep out his office and deport him to “Literature” or “Cultural Studies” or ask the Mortuary Science Department to find a place for him—so be it. But give him the measly sum he deserves and reward him for superbly performing the work he was hired to do.
Irritated and restless, but not as
fractious as I can be,
Entertaining as this letter is, though, it is for Browles that Fitger reserves his most impassioned pleas. And, in fact, it is only through the sad conclusion to Browles’s story that the novel itself acquires narrative shape—specifically, a marked change in Fitger’s combative relationship with many of his correspondents. (Rest assured, though, that Fitger’s redemption does not entail any renunciation of his faith in the humanities.)
Dear Committee Members is so cutting and so lively (far from being hampered by the novel’s epistolary form, Schumacher has immense fun with it) that it’s tempting to quote virtually all of it in order to do it justice. And since Fitger himself is a little prone to wordiness, I doubt he would mind if I did just that. However, to ensure that Schumacher continues to lead “‘the writing life,’ which, despite its horrors, is possibly one of the few sorts of lives worth living at all,” I’ll instead recommend that you buy her latest novel ASAP.
Dear Committee Members was published in Aug. 2014 by Doubleday.
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