The Saturday Read – ‘Dear Committee Members’ by Julie Schumacher

Have you ever considered a life as a university professor? For those outside the ivory tower, it seems an idyllic career: contemplating great thoughts, teaching a few classes, and travelling the world on sabbatical.

This week’s ‘Saturday Read’ is required reading for anyone planning to spend an extended period of time on a college campus. University of Minnesota professor Julie Schumacher has written a valuable and humorous addition to the canon of university life with ‘Dear Committee Members’.

If your workplace is academia, you are familiar with letters of reference. In this novel of university life, creative writing and literature professor Jason Fitger narrates a year in his life via a variety of LORs, written to advance his personal agenda and the careers of colleagues and students.

Brock Clarke’s review of the book cited the author’s choice of structure as one of its strengths.

“…Schumacher also brilliantly uses the epistolary form to show Jay’s desperation in the face of his crumbling university, career, life. In all this, her scabrous book reminds me of Sam Lipsyte’s “Home Land,” Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” and Jincy Willett’s “Winner of the National Book Award.” If you didn’t find those books funny, well, that means you’re a corpse. But you’re also, apparently, a corpse who reads, so there’s hope for you yet. You should read “Dear Committee Members”; maybe it will bring you back to life.”

The story tracks with the academic calendar and begins with our fearless professor writing a letter of recommendation for a grad student, followed by another providing an assessment of the current state of affairs to the department chair.

“…more that a third of our faculty now consists of temporary (adjunct) instructors who creep into the building under cover of darkness to teach graveyard shifts of freshman comp; they are not eligible to vote or serve…the remaining two-thirds of the faculty, bearing the scars of disenfranchisement and long-term abuse, are busy tending to personal grudges like scraps of carrion on which they gnaw in the gloom of their offices…after subtracting the names of those who are on leave or close to retirement, and those already serving in the killing fields of administration…”

Only an insider could provide this accurate summation of the state of the university today. This is not breaking news to those inside the ivy walls, but serves as a reality check to those aspiring to an academic career.

The author provides one of the most compelling arguments for the liberal arts in Jason’s letter of recommendation to fictional Bridget Maslow at Addistar Network, Inc. And gives any of you english majors out there the perfect words for your cover letter.

“Belatedly it occurs to me that some members of your HR committee, a few skeptical souls, may be clutching a double strand of worry beads and wondering aloud about the practicality or usefulness of a degree in English rather than, let’s say, computers. Be reassured: the literature students has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift to analyze, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrast is a technician – a plumber clutching a single, abeit shining, box of tools.”

‘Dear Committee Members’ is a story of one man’s career/life choices. At the end, you just may want to consider a university as your workplace. Where else can you work where one quarter of the population are newbies and you have the opportunity to start over every autumn?

“There is nothing more promising or hopeful than the start of the academic cycle: another chance for self-improvement, for putting into practice what one learned – or failed to learn – during the previous year.”