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Dear Committee Members

March 2, 2015

Last week at the public library I found a copy of a novel recommended to me by a friend who works in a university library, Readersguide. Composed entirely in letters, Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, manages to tell most of what happens to the writer of all these letters of recommendation, the fictional Jason Fitger, who is a professor in the English department of a small Midwestern college.

Many of the letters are instantly recognizable to anyone who has, like me, worked at a small Midwestern college: the one for which the student asked for the letter only a few days before the deadline (often over Thanksgiving), the form that asks big questions but only allows two lines of type for each one, and the kind that nobody really reads but everybody requires, as Fitger puts it “to satisfy our university’s endless requests for redundant documentation.”

I got a little ticked off just reading some of the letters in the first section because I was reminded of similar ones I’d had to write. But then, in the second section, the fictional Fitger starts garnering my sympathy with letters like one he writes for his student applying to MFA programs, which are ludicrously difficult to get into:
“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 who you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.”

Finally I started actively rooting for Fitger when he writes to recommend a very junior colleague, “complying with your latest summons for superfluous information, I am, yes, thoroughly wiling to recommend Arabella McCoy for the position of teaching assistant mentor….You understand of course that Ms McCoy is a stranger to me….I have skimmed her CV and her letter of interest, both of which express the requisite theater-of-the-absurd language about pedagogy and the euphoria of learning. Suffering creature! By all means, yes, yes! I endorse her bid for the mentorship: may the bump in salary allow her to avoid scurvy by adding fruit to her diet once a week.”

By the final third of this slim volume, I was thoroughly in the spirit, enjoying Fitger’s temper tantrums as wish fulfillment. Especially this one, which echoes thoughts I’ve had but never articulated:
“In the context of the hiring freeze—purportedly imposed on all departments but inflicted mainly on English and the Lilliputian units—and in light of our diminution via recent retirements, we can’t afford to sacrifice even one teaching colleague to the funeral pyre of administration. You want undergraduates who can write, think, and read? Stop pretending that writing can be taught across the curriculum by geologists and physicists who wouldn’t recognize a dependent clause if it bit them on the ass.”
I must add, however, that the only time I’ve ever seen anyone diagram a sentence was in the green room of the theater at my undergraduate college (small, Midwestern) when a friend who now teaches physics at the college where I work (small, Midwestern) showed me how to do it.

If you’ve ever worked at a college or university, now that spring break season is upon us is a good time to enjoy the fictional ravings of someone who has more letters of recommendation to write than you do, and a less pleasant office to write them in.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2015 3:57 pm

    sounds delightful, and i don’t even work at a university!

  2. March 2, 2015 9:21 pm

    Funny, I don’t think I saw Chris’ rec, but I just Kindlized this over the weekend, thinking it might be nice accompaniment to my conference this weekend, in the event that I have any time to read. This review makes me want to bump it up the queue!

    • March 3, 2015 12:59 pm

      Her recommendation was on my 7th blog anniversary post, where I asked for books to read this year. I think you’d love it, especially at a conference.

  3. March 2, 2015 10:59 pm

    I loved this book so much. I’m a professor at a small Midwestern college myself. 🙂

    • March 3, 2015 1:00 pm

      So you really felt the feelings. Oddly, since it’s by a woman, I was a little irritated at the beginning by the kind of male academic tone I associate with David Lodge.

  4. March 2, 2015 11:31 pm

    I just finished reading this book (I absolutely devoured it), and you’re right–it’s spot on when it comes to the state of higher ed, especially in the humanities. I have not had the pleasure/misfortune of working at a college (I hope one day to break into the ranks of adjunct instructors at a community college), but it rang so true based on my experiences in grad school. The bureaucracy, the pervasive sense of hopelessness, the petty infighting that crops up when nothing important can actually get done–so, so true. Glad to hear someone else appreciated it as well!

    • March 3, 2015 1:01 pm

      oh Tamsin! Easier to break in than break out, at least sometimes.

  5. March 3, 2015 9:01 am

    I think I will love this book. I always wonder if it would have been cool to be a college prof but only about 3 generations ago.

  6. March 3, 2015 12:05 pm

    This sounds a lot of fun; even just having had the experience of filling out forms to apply to uni is enough to make me interested.

  7. March 3, 2015 4:22 pm

    Oh the friends that I could recommend this to! Sounds like a great way to blow off a little steam and have a good laugh at the same time. And ugh–the bureaucratic redundancies. Unfortunately not limited to academia.

    • March 9, 2015 2:48 pm

      Oh, true. Academia has less of the irritating redundancies but more of the irritating personalities, in general.

  8. Jenny permalink
    March 3, 2015 5:44 pm

    I think I’d really like this book. I tend to like academic satire a lot.

  9. March 3, 2015 9:19 pm

    This is the second time I’ve seen this reviewed/recommended. I should pick it up in May. Want to remind me to do so? (I should give a copy to at least one of my colleagues, as well.)

  10. March 4, 2015 11:52 am

    What fun! I think I just might like Jason Fitger 🙂

    • March 9, 2015 2:50 pm

      He gets more likable, although he does remind me, all the way through, of some old-guy academic hero out of Updike or Irwin Shaw or (as I mentioned) David Lodge.

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