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.”

The week@work – writer’s rooms and publishing lack diversity, alternatives to academia, what scares us most and the number one mistake job seekers make

As the world turned this week@work, journalists continued to highlight the lack of diversity in the workplace: in the writers rooms of TV, the publishing industry and tech. The National Endowment for the Humanities announced a grant initiative to align graduate education with employment prospects.  A survey from Chapman University identified our top fear as corruption of government officials (unemployment and public speaking being way down on the list). And a CEO offered advice on the one mistake job seekers make.

Things are not looking good on the diversity front. Aisha Harris reporting on, investigated the lack of progress on diversity behind the camera, in the rooms where plot and dialogue are created for your favorite TV shows.

“A Writers’ Guild of America report released earlier this year noted that staff employment for people of color actually decreased between the 2011–12 season and 2013–14 season, from a peak of 15.6 percent to 13.7 percent. The number of executive producers of color also decreased in those seasons, from 7.8 percent to 5.5 percent. While the 2014–15 season may have seen those numbers increase thanks to the addition of a few shows with diverse casts, such sharp declines demonstrate how tenuous progress in Hollywood can be.

…the television industry, like most creative industries (including journalism), pays lip service to “diversity” while very little actually changes. Even as the hottest show on TV boasts a majority-nonwhite writing staff, the work of vigorously recruiting non-white writing talent is still confined to a narrow pipeline: Diversity departments and fellowships help to fill one or two designated diversity slots on each staff. And that’s just the start of the problem: As writer after writer revealed, even when writers of color make it into that pipeline, the industry hasn’t gotten much better at making them feel as though their voices matter.”

Jim Milliot, the editorial director for Publishers Weekly, reported on their annual publishing industry salary survey. While the results indicated younger employees may be replacing the old guard, the workforce is still predominantly white.

“If publishers are indeed recruiting a new generation of employees, they do not appear to be hiring minorities. The share of survey respondents who identified themselves as white/Caucasian was 89% in 2014, the same as in the previous year. Asians remained the second-largest ethnic group within publishing, accounting for 5% of respondents in 2014, up from 3% the previous year. With the survey finding no real change in the racial composition of the workforce, it is no surprise that only 21% of respondents felt that strides had been made in diversifying the industry’s workforce in 2014. A much higher percentage, however, said they believe the industry has made progress in publishing titles by nonwhite authors and titles aimed at more diverse readers.”

One other article of interest on the diversity topic was written by Vauhini Vara for Fast Company and details Pinterest’s efforts to “fix its diversity problem”. She chronicles the various efforts to identify recruitment channels over the past two years and the lack of progress in diversifying the workplace. “There is lots of hope but little certainty about what works.”

The common thread in all of these ‘lack of diversity’ conversations is the ‘wishful thinking’ for a quick fix. The majority of the careers covered in these articles are filled by ‘contract’ employees. The hiring is tied to a project. When the next project begins, folks hire their trusted colleagues from previous gigs and there are few openings for a newbie. Diversity requires a long term investment in education, internships and mentoring – creating a new career pipeline.

One solution I personally observed in my corporate life was when a senior exec tied business unit management compensation to diversity targets. If you are rewarded for diversity – hiring and retention – there is a better chance for success. It’s not brain surgery; it’s a matter of priorities.

Academia is another workplace that has continued to struggle with diversity issues, driven in part by an outdated tenure process and lack of career transition in senior faculty ranks. As students continue to enroll in PhD programs, their predecessors compete for the few faculty openings and get by cobbling together a mosaic of ‘contract’ adjunct positions. Until now, it was taboo for a grad student to speak out loud about pursuing a career outside the ivory tower.

Colleen Flaherty reports for Inside Higher Education on the National Endowment for the Humanities recognition of diminishing tenure-track options and a proposal to explore alternatives.

“Critics have long complained about doctoral education in the humanities, saying that it takes too long and no longer reflects the realities of graduates’ employment prospects. In other words, graduate humanities programs are still largely training students to become professors at major research universities, when the vast majority won’t, given the weak tenure-track job market.

“We know that the traditional career track in the humanities, in term of numbers of available positions, is diminished — that scenario has changed quite dramatically over time,” William D. Adams, NEH chairman, said in an interview. “So we’re reacting to that in trying to assist institutions in providing a wider aperture for their students to think about careers beyond [academe].”

Based on the workplace issues we experience and read about, it may come as a surprise that workplace concerns are not at the top of this year’s Chapman University survey ‘America’s Top Fears 2015’.

Cari Romm summarized the survey methodology and results in an article for The Atlantic.

“For the survey, a random sample of around 1,500 adults ranked their fears of 88 different items on a scale of one (not afraid) to four (very afraid). The fears were divided into 10 different categories: crime, personal anxieties (like clowns or public speaking), judgment of others, environment, daily life (like romantic rejection or talking to strangers), technology, natural disasters, personal future, man-made disasters, and government—and when the study authors averaged out the fear scores across all the different categories, technology came in second place, right behind natural disasters.


In the last article of the week, Business Insider writer Jacquelyn Smith, interviewed Liz Wessel, CEO and Co-founder of WayUp and discovered the biggest mistake job seekers make.

“People are generally far too modest,” she says. “If there’s ever a time to brag, it’s during your job search and interviews. You need to state your accomplishments and show how your work led to awesome outcomes for your companies. Remember, you need to convince your interviewer that, out of all the applicants the company is considering, you’re their best bet.”

If you don’t take credit for your work and accomplishments, no one is going to give you the benefit of the doubt for being modest, Wessel adds. “And if you don’t show proof of your accomplishments, you won’t stand out.”

The reason this “mistake” is so common, she says, is that a lot of people are good at being “team players,” and therefore try to share the credit. “In a lot of cases, this is a great instinct, and while it’s obviously important to work well in a team setting, it’s also important to convince an employer to hire you, not your entire team.

The message in the week@work themes: those who are confident in their talent and able to articulate their value to an organization have the potential to contend for work in writing, publishing, tech and academia. But the playing field is not level and winning the coveted spots will ‘take a village’: committed employers, dedicated mentors, paid internships, educational outreach and community visibility.

When did we start ‘shopping’ for college’?

When did college become a commodity? When did the decision of the best place to go translate into a monetary return on investment? When did we start shopping for college as we would for any other ‘big ticket’ consumer purchase?

I’m guessing it started when the average cost of college exceeded the average annual income of the majority of Americans.

Add to that a financial aid vocabulary that includes terms similar to those we use when we buy a car: ‘sticker price’ (tuition without room and board and books and lab fees) and ‘discounting’ (need-based institutional grant aid and discounts granted in an effort to increase the probability that particular students will choose to enroll).

Unfortunately price has become the determinant where ‘fit’ and values should predominate.

This week high school seniors will log on to websites to learn if they have been admitted to the college of their choice. For some, the financials will limit the choice, but for all it’s time to commit to a plan for the next two to four years.

In recent years there has been a trend to vocationalism in the choice of college and major. At the top schools business and economics departments are growing while humanities shrink. And why? Because parents and students are ‘buying in’ to a belief that the highest ranked schools with majors closely linked to employers are the best choice.

I disagree.

There are no guarantees. In a past life I would meet in large auditoriums where parents would arrive with the ‘ten questions you should ask when visiting a college campus’. One was always: How many students were employed at graduation? Does it matter? If your child does not have a job when he or she graduates and the other 99% of the Class of 2019 does, it doesn’t matter. Given the volatility of the job market and the ever changing complexion of entry level opportunities, can we really project out four years? That didn’t work out so well for the Class of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Here are three things I would consider above all in selecting a college today: faculty, location and internships.

You should select a place where the faculty is expert in their field, but also accessible. It’s important to spend time with professors outside of the classroom to truly optimize the academic experience. Too many students take a class and never meet with their teachers outside the classroom. For those of you in the ‘vocational view of higher ed camp’, faculty provide an underutilized professional network.

Next, location. I recommend a location near a large city, with a strong international presence for study abroad. If you are funding your education, you want to earn money during the summer months. In an urban area there will be multiple opportunities to acquire internships and work experience along with your class schedule during the academic year. Global experience is also critical. Students should study at least one semester outside the US, preferably in a country where english is not the spoken language.

Finally, internships. A few years ago employers visiting college campuses began to regard internship experience as a more important predictor of success than GPA. Internships are no longer an option. It’s equally important for a student to test their interests in the workplace as it is for an employer to preview the talent of the intern.

I haven’t mentioned major, because I think you should sample courses in your first year before you commit to an area of concentration. Interests change over time and students should explore a variety of academic areas.

Over the years I have asked hundreds of students why they selected where they attended college. Almost unanimously, the answer is about a ‘gut’ feel that this was a place were I ‘fit’ and could be successful.

You can’t shop for ‘fit’. Values are not for sale. Choice of college is about growth, transforming from the high school senior to a contributing member of a global community.