The Chronicle Review

An Academic Novel With a Twist

Justin Renteria for The Chronicle Review

August 25, 2014

I have a three-inch-thick folder of readers’ reports in the filing cabinet in my office. The folder is bigger than a book manuscript. Beside it, on a thumb drive, I have long lists of recommendation letters, tenure-and-promotion reviews, and the various other kinds of evaluation that people call on professors to do.

Dear Committee Members

By Julie Schumacher (Doubleday)

Whatever we teach, our primary social function might, in fact, be evaluation. We grade, we vet, we rate, we recommend, we accredit. During the school year, we mark tests and papers; in the early fall we compose job letters for Ph.D. candidates; around New Year’s we send letters for students applying to graduate school; in the spring we draft letters for undergraduates; and in between we might have fellowship or award letters to write. Readers’ reports on prospective articles or books know no season. Summer is not entirely free, as it brings those tenure-and-promotion packets. Then it starts all over again.

These tasks are an ambient part of being a professor. They’re not exactly invisible (people certainly complain about them), but they don’t show up on a CV, and there are no courses on how to do them in graduate school. You just pick up the form and rhetoric as you go along.

A new novel, Dear Committee Members (Doubleday), by Julie Schumacher, a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, puts this dimension of professorial life in the foreground. Its twist on the genre is to tell the story entirely through a year’s worth of recommendation letters (67 in all) by Jason Fitger, a creative-writing professor at the fictional Payne University, a middling research university in the Midwest. He writes letters on behalf of students applying for scholarships, for law or other graduate programs, and especially for jobs, high and low, on and off the campus. He occasionally writes recommendations for faculty members or administrators looking for tenure or other jobs. He also writes to his literary agent on behalf of students and friends.

Schumacher's twist on the genre is to tell the story entirely through a year's worth of recommendation letters.

The letters have many funny touches, which carry the novel. A running joke is about never-ending construction in the English department’s offices, and Fitger often slips in complaints about the disruption, particularly in correspondence with administrators, along with flourishes about the economics department’s "jewel-encrusted palazzo" upstairs. He descends from a long line of cranky, middle-aged, and not especially politic male faculty members in academic fiction.

The best touches, though, have to do with students. More than a third of the letters recommend students for jobs, and one chord that runs throughout is that they face dubious prospects. A couple are for the kind of jobs one would expect—to work for a literary journal or as an adjunct—but most are far from English: at a paintball company, a military contractor, an RV park. It’s not a good time to be an English major, and Fitger’s concern for his students redeems his otherwise questionable epistolary etiquette.

Another humorous chord is the writing that students favor. Fitger often includes details about his students in his letters, noting what they wrote for a course. For readers concerned about the state of literature, well, the canon has changed. The students look to sci-fi, horror, or fantasy, writing about mutant fleshing-eating arachnids, evil killers, or a lover who transforms into a hawk. The most successful graduate student, who gets a six-figure book contract, proposes a coming-of-age story about a genetically engineered hybrid of human and cheetah. Portrait of the Artist as a Cat?

The jokes make the novel entertaining, especially for fans of academic fiction, but they do not push it beyond the confines of the genre. Fitger comes straight from central casting, channeling hapless male protagonistslike Hank Devereaux, in Richard Russo’s Straight Man, and the iconic Jim Dixon, in Lucky Jim—with women problems (including winceable moments when he writes to his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend) as well as job issues. The novel suggests a satire, but its targets are predictable—the indifference of administrators, the quirkiness of faculty members, the undervaluing of the humanities, those darn students, and the bureaucratic world foisted on the life of the mind—and without much teeth.

If Dear Committee Members has a distinct target, it is the preponderance of evaluative tasks like writing letters. Indeed, Schumacher herself wrote a revealing essay in The Chronicle, "The Gristmill of Praise" (January 30), reporting how many letters of recommendation she’d received as director of creative writing (1,644 in six months’ time), as well as 50 to 100 that she writes each year. It would be interesting to see the academic world through the eyes of a character like a director of a writing program at a major research university. Instead, Schumacher’s novel turns back nostalgically to the retro sensibility of an old-fashioned loose cannon.

Like Thurber’s Mitty, academic fiction allows us to imagine acting out, violating strictures, bucking bureaucracy.

This is probably one of the chief purposes of academic fiction, and why it maintains its readership: It offers fantasy fulfillment. Like Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it allows us to imagine acting out, violating strictures, bucking bureaucracy. Academic fiction is a species of white-collar fiction, bristling against the psychic constraints of mental labor, but it also tends to be a bookish genre, evoking literary forebears, valuing writing and thought, and standing apart from the world of getting and spending.

The genre often adopts an antiprofessional attitude, as if the protocols of the profession were the problem, at the same time that it claims to represent the profession’s true meaning. In Dear Committee Members, much of the humor comes from Fitger’s deeply unprofessional behavior, inserting complaints or too much information into letters, but it assumes he is motivated by a higher purpose. He’s the true believer, they’re the charlatans.

In our Ayn Rand-leaning times, it’s easy to disparage organizational structures like professions and bureaucracies. There are no doubt better and worse versions of each, but we should not forget that they usually follow the protocols of equal opportunity and meritocracy. And they do so to counteract systems based on unearned privilege, connections, pure self-interest, or arbitrary fortune.

Before World War II, academe was more aristocratic than meritocratic; professors, like lords, tapped their students for jobs. With the subsequent expansion of higher education, recommendation letters became one of the instruments that made a leveler and fairer playing field.

Recommendation letters are not immune from passing on privilege—in her essay, Schumacher observes that famous Ivy League professors write short letters because the letterheads carry weight—but the system is an improvement on the old boys’ network, which is not something that we should have nostalgia for.

A fundamental problem of our work lives is not that we have to do tasks like writing or reading letters, but that there are fewer full-time, permanent faculty members to do the bulk of the evaluative work. The three-quarters of faculty members who have adjunct or non-tenure-track positions aren’t paid to do the extras, and they might be on their own treadmills of applying and reapplying.

While one of the purposes of fiction is to entertain us, another is to imagine alternative possibilities. What would a novel envisioning a better system of higher education look like?

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book, How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, will be published by Fordham University Press next month.