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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

The Librarian is in: 'Dear Committee Members'

This is likely my favorite work I’ve encountered over the last two years. Its humorous and satirical writing tells the story of Jason T. Fitger, professor of Creative Writing at the fictitious “Payne University.” Fitger is tasked with writing letters of recommendation (“LoRs”) for his students and colleagues for a variety of reasons: jobs, fellowships, promotions and the like. He’s weighed down by the busyness of tending to all things related to teaching and regrets that his mundane work precludes him from doing his preferred work: tending to his much graying writing career. Fitger’s irascibility and aggression are thinly veiled in his missives. The recipients of his sardonic epistles are frequently people he has wronged in the past —including two ex-wives — and he is convinced that they are still nursing grudges against him. Despite his eloquence, his talent for securing personal favors from his former peers is wantingly successful. 

Fitger is a lovable fool. With his LoRs, he often goes out of his way to support bright students and aims to be authentic in letter after letter, resisting systems that ask him to rate his students with numerical scores. As he writes, the story of his career, too, is told between the lines: he published an early and successful novel that drew a good deal of attention, likely for the scintillating scandal represented within its pages, and it was followed by works that were more disappointing as they were wanting in popularity. So now he is confined to a Midwestern university where funding for basic supports — like functional toilets and windows — is precarious for the English department while the Economics professors are treated like gods. He’s livid. His intellect is understimulated. And his efforts feel Sisyphean.

Having spent more than 5 years at public institutions of higher education in the Midwest, I find this work hilarious and spot on. I liked it so much, I’ve listened to it twice on OverDrive. Author Schumacher makes many poignant critiques on the state of academia through the voice of her misanthropic Fitger. She questions the link between those who graduate with English degrees and the jobs the market allows them to apply for. She underscores the heartbreaking loss of talent surrounding students and professors who are mentally sharp, but for a variety of reasons — financial aid, time, politics, distraction, etc. — are unable to nurture their talents or produce writing that reflects their brilliance. And she eviscerates the incestuous landscape of academia in which everybody knows everybody and old wounds fester on for decades following injury

Schumacher’s "Dear Committee Members" is a scathing, all-knowing love-hate letter to academia that I would recommend to any faculty member who has minimally spent 5 years as a teaching professional in higher ed or any student who aspires to join these ranks. An exegesis and tour de force, might I recommend you listen to this one as an audiobook on Robertson Dean’s vocal interpretation acumen is extraordinary. (Pro tip: Familiarize yourself with Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” upon reading or listening to this work.) For more like this, see the novel’s sequel "The Shakespeare Requirement" or anything by David Sedaris.