In the American imagination, the English major doesn’t loom so much as hunker, feckless and retro, harmless so long as he’s not your progeny, pissing away prodigious tuition dollars on a degree worth less than its Hobby Lobby frame. The English professor occupies only slightly better social real estate—saved by the fact of an income and endless reserves of cultural capital that, when exchanged on the open market, equal about one grunt year in Silicon Valley. The recent spate of ardent editorials in defense of the humanities are embarrassing even to members of the tribe because they reek of failure, and because why should the nose have to convince the face it deserves to be there, when it already offers scent and breath?
Jason Fitger, English professor protagonist of Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher’s scathing, hilarious epistolary novel, knows his place: on the back foot with his gloves up. Through dozens of letters of recommendation, he wards off attacks both bureaucratic and personal, real and imagined, with a pen sharpened into an ironic point. Unlike his high-minded colleagues in the editorial pages, Fitger harbors no illusion of victory, or even détente, in this country’s culture wars; he’s just trying to avoid being killed by falling dry wall, or having to write letters of recommendation to himself (as, he informs the department chair via letter, he has had to do on numerous occasions).
In this capacity, he is the classic campus novel anti-hero, a man well-equipped to quip his way through the abundant satire of his life in a dysfunctional department at a third-tier school. He is prickly, observant, and cringingly honest, and one can’t help but relish the artful skewering of undeserving students seeking jobs at hilariously-named companies (“If Sellebritta Online is in need of an editor/copywriter who refuses to allow the demands of honesty or originality to delay her output, it will have found one in the unflappable Ms. Tara Tappani”) and unqualified colleagues (“Kentrell will never survive round #1 of your deliberations; therefore, secure in the knowledge that this letter will soon join thousands of its brethren in a rolling bin destined for recycling—presumably before it is read—I am comfortable endorsing his application”).
Still, not all the letters are cynical exercises in futility or litanies of complaints directed to campus bean counters. When he exhausts his Rolodex trying to drum up monetary or artistic support on behalf of Darren Browles, a graduate student novelist who has lost his funding, Fitger is sincere and tireless. He is equally dogged and generous with one-time classmate Troy, a troubled genius in need of bolstering after a long, grief-driven hiatus from writing. Add to these actions his chastisement of for-profit MFA programs and adjunct-abusing English departments, and his self-flagellating apologias to both his ex-wife (law school admissions) and his ex-girlfriend (student services) and Fitger begins to resemble someone who actually gives a damn.
While the structural gimmick of the letter of recommendation sounds like something ventured on a dare after a departmental meeting, Schumacher deftly transforms the humble LOR into a legitimate novelistic vehicle. By the book’s end, these dashed-off, free-standing communiqués accumulate artistic and emotional weight. We see in many of the letters a very real attempt to connect, to help, to praise, though the book’s brilliant and devastating ending suggests that words have only so much power. More radically, in this very funny book, Schumacher suggests something unabashedly serious: that the crisis in American higher education—the slashed funding, the gutted departments, the downgrading of the humanities, and the commodification of scholarship—has tangible and tragic consequences. So yes, Jason Fitger, with his elitist self-regard, his petty rivalries, and first-world problems, is a joke. But like all good satire, the joke is, unfortunately, on us.
Keija Parssinen is the author of The Ruins of Us, which won a Michener-Copernicus award. Her second novel, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, was named a Must Read by Ploughshares, Bustle, Bookish, Pop Sugar, and Style Bistro. She is a graduate of Princeton University and the Iowa Writers’Workshop. In addition to working with students in Cedar Crest College’s Pan-European MFA program, Keija is an Assistant Professor of English specializing in fiction writing at the University of Tulsa. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband and son.