I absolutely loved Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members even though—I must come clean, here—my daughter just got a PhD in Economics. (Read ahead to see what that’s about! ) “Finally a novel that puts the “pissed” back into “epistolary:”–the blurb alone makes it an easy sell. No hard sell needed, however, to just about anyone with a sense of humor and/or who cares about the fate of liberal arts education. As Anne Beattie says, “This is a funny, very sad, disarming novel.”
Jason Fitger is a prickly professor in the English Department of a small midwestern university. He teaches creative writing and literature but in a telling detail rarely (never?) in the book shares these experiences. Instead, the text is a series of letters Prof Fitger writes to colleagues, to ex-significant others/one-time colleagues, to a variety of depressing potential employers of his undergraduate English major students (Flanders Nut House, Kompu Metricka Inc, Catfish Catering, Annie’s Nannies Child and Play Center…you get the idea) and to distressingly elitist directors of esteemed MFA and literary residency programs.
One of the more irresistible aspects of Dear Committee Members is Julie Schumacher’s refusal to regard the beleaguered English department at Payne University as sacrosanct. Instead, she takes potshots as only an insider could: Jason Fitger is difficult, at best, his greatest misdeed the mining of his (and partners’) personal lives for his “fiction;” people with whom Prof Fitger has “come up”, having undergone various career metamorphoses, seem to have zero loyalty/compunction to assist him or his charges in any functional way; the English and MFA students’ behavior, study habits and even their writing falls far short of exemplary. People steal each other’s work with impunity. Young talent is lost in the shuffle, and worse.
Regarding Econ: Prof Fitger’s office is one floor below the Department of Economics, which, while the university’s English department languishes, is benefitting from a full-scale upgrade. Payne University loves its Econ department. Fair enough, perhaps, except that the English department is made to eat the construction-generated detritus of Econ’s privilege in addition to suffering its own losses: full-time tenure-track professorships, physical space, light, even directorship by one of its own. (In just one example of hilarious storytelling—at least I hope it’s storytelling —the recently appointed English Department chair is a sociologist.)
Having walked with my daughter through five years of an Econ PhD, I can tell you it was no piece of cake. It seems to me her five years of crunching numbers (and a great deal of analytical reading and writing, as well) is no more or less valuable than the reading, analysis, writing, sustained creative energy and perfectly crafted words-on-the-page required for an MFA or English PhD. Jason Fitger would probably disagree with me. Others might say degrees in Econ and English can’t be compared. In Dear Committee Members Julie Schumacher makes a strong argument that in a world of limited university funding they are, indeed, compared. Compared, and made to compete. And English, says Julie Schumacher, is losing.
This is where a very funny book turns serious. What is the future of liberal arts curricula, of English and creative writing undergraduate and graduate programs? Who, if not “Payne Universities,” will care about books? How can we encourage and sustain students engaging in studies for which there is so little financial and cultural support, in OR outside of the university setting? And is there really no better way to document a student’s standing than via these dreaded (by both student and professor) letters of recommendation? Prof Fitger, fussy as he is, has a last word on this one: he sets up a scholarship fund for which students can apply with no letters of recommendation necessary.