Dear Committee Members
Published August 19, 2014
180 pages (hardcover)
If you were to ask a random person on the street what mental image she conjures when she hears the words “college professor,” her description might be something like this: a beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and graying hair a couple weeks overdue for a haircut. She would likely think of someone who is brilliant, held in high esteem, impressive, and maybe a touch intimidating.
But, if you were to ask me what the words “college professor” call to mind, I’d have a very different response: my family.
My father is a professor. So is my mother. And my stepfather. And my uncle. Hell, even my grandfather and grandmother were professors. My brother likes to say that academia is the family business.
For me, professors aren’t merely bastions of higher learning. They’re normal (well, maybe slightly more eccentric than normal), flawed people . . . who have been held in such high regard for so long that it’s gone to their heads.
Set aside the stereotypical image of a professor for a moment and think about your own professors. I’d be willing to bet you can name a professor who’s a little too cerebral and one who’s a little too flaky and another who’s a little too stuffy.
But, hey, can you blame them? When you work only nine months out of the year, have no fear of losing your job, are always treated like you’re the smartest person in the room (except, of course, when you’re in a room full of professors), and enjoy cushy perks like sabbaticals, it’s easy to lose perspective. It’s no wonder that professors live in a bubble where First-World problems reign supreme. Want to hear people whine about shit that doesn’t matter in real life? Be a fly on the wall in any departmental meeting at your nearest university.
In her new book, Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher gives you that fly-on-the-wall perspective. She eschews the usual smart, reserved, above-the-fray professor image in favor of a very different (and, perhaps, more realistic) one: a professor who is whiny, egotistical, and oblivious.
Jason T. Fitger is a Professor of Creative Writing and English at the fictional Payne University. He is a self-described egotist who is a languishing former writer (his last three books have been failures). Now, the majority of his writing is wasted on letters of recommendation. And Dear Committee Members is a book comprised solely of those letters.
In theory, his letters are to recommend this student for a writing residency program or that junior faculty member for a committee appointment. In reality, however, his letters are the vehicles by which he enumerates his woes. The English department’s building is being renovated, and he is forced to work amidst the noise and dust and asbestos! His star student can’t catch a break now that the graduate program has lost funding and will never finish his masterpiece of a novel! His ex-wife and ex-girlfriend are now friends (a friendship based, no doubt, on their shared negative opinion of him)!
Fitger is not aware of boundaries; the concept of an appropriate time and place is foreign to him. Nor does he have a filter. Thus he begins a letter of recommendation to the Vice Provost as follows:
The purpose of this letter is to bolster the promotion and tenure case of Professor Martina Ali here at our esteemed institution of higher learning. I am not a member of Professor Ali’s Film Studies Program, but the Honorable Pooh-Bahs in your office have decreed that P&T dossiers be encumbered with no fewer than six missives of support, and Professor Ali is one of only three faculty members in her own modest department. Such is the wisdom that prevails at Payne.
After a brief paragraph or two about Ali, Fitger decides that, since he has the Vice Provost’s attention, he should take advantage of that by bringing up a few issues that have been troubling him. He has no qualms airing his grievances (or his dirty laundry) in a letter of recommendation. And, thus, he goes on a few tangents, including this one:
Finally, as for your recent memo on financial prudence: Good lord, man. We know about the funding crunch, we aren’t idiots, but we also know that your fiscal fix is being applied selectively. For those in the sciences or social sciences, sacrifice will come in the form of fewer varieties of pâté on the lunch trays. For English: seven defections/retirements in three years and not one replaced; two graduate programs no longer permitted to accept new students; and a Captain Queeg-like sociologist at the helm. The junior faculty in our department will surely abandon their posts at the first opportunity, while the elder statesmen—I speak here for myself—may exact a more punishing revenge by refusing to retire.
Dear Committee Members is a book that is heavy on gimmick—it’s like a Where’d You Go, Bernadette for academics. It is similar in style (epistolary) and tone (wry, acerbic, witty). But the gimmick pays off. Schumacher is herself a professor in the Creative Writing Program and Department of English at the University of Minnesota. So, she knows first-hand how hard the life of a college professor truly is (The meetings! The bureaucratic red tape! Students who refuse to proofread their papers! The committees! All those letters of recommendation!). And this send-up of her own kind is self-effacing and funny.
- An Indie Next List selection for September 2014
Who should read it: Professors who are familiar with the ridiculousness that goes on behind closed doors at institutions of higher learning . . . and can laugh about it.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (a LibraryReads List selection for August 2014; an Indie Next List pick for September 2014)
- All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2014 and New York Times best seller)