Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Dear Committee Members - by Julie Schumacher

Recommended to me by more than a few of my colleagues at the university, this satire was excellent listening fare for my husband and me during our regular weekend drives to our beach house. Told in epistolary style, this book is a series of letters written by English professor Jason T. Fitger of the fictitious Payne University (located somewhere in the Midwest). Fitger's letters are addressed not only to committee members, but to ex-wives, colleagues, friends, and administrators as well as to various people who are in positions to hire some of Fitger's acquaintances. These infamous Letters of Reference (aka LORs) were easily my favorite parts of the book. Fitger's outsized ego is revealed, as is his sarcasm, and any number of his myriad peccadilloes through his letters. Still, in the end we wish him no ill will. He is already dealing with plenty of BS that anyone in academics will readily recognize. I daresay that the descriptions of the shabby state of the offices in the Department of English hit too close to home when compared with the accommodations afforded to the Humanities at my own University.

Of course any academician worth their salt knows the value of a library. While we can never be sure that Our Dear Professor Fitger actually ever darkens the door of a library himself, he does seem to recognize them for their importance in exploring academic pursuits. For instance, in one LOR for student Gunner Lang (who is seeking work-study student employment anywhere on campus) Fitger's supplication that the young man be placed in the "library rather than the slops of food service" acknowledges that the library is a superior place and one that a student such as Gunner, who has "bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences" certainly deserves to be. This LOR is written rather early in the book (which takes place over one academic year). A second LOR for young Gunner is written much later in the year in hopes of procuring the lad a summer research fellowship so as to write a literary criticism of O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods. Fitger surmises that Gunner will put the $400 award to good use
by availing himself of the foul-smelling vending machine sandwiches in Appleton library while immersing himself in a study of narrative uncertainty and violence
This is not the first time, however, that Fitger mentions bad library vending machine food in an LOR. This honor goes to the letter written for his friend Troy Larpenteur, who rather inexplicably, is looking for a job as a sales associate at the Zentex Corporation. In his letter Fitger reminisces back twenty-three years
to the sight of the Seminar table, his hair looking as if he had slept on the floor of the library by the vending machines (he usually had)... 
One other letter makes mention of the library: one written on behalf of Fitger's unfortunate colleague  Karolyi Pazmentalyi whose department (Slavic Languages) was a victim of the evil Provost's recent reorganization. Fitger describes his hapless friend's lonely work over the previous decade
holed up in a corner of the library his craggy profile visible in the the fluorescent glare of the overheads when everyone else was uncorking a beverage at home
which resulted in publication of a scholarly book, the type of work that would normally bring with it a promotion, but in Pazmentalyi's case was dismissed since his entire department was being purged. Again, I found that this passage hit a bit too close to home for me.

This book is truly a must-read for anyone in the Academy, although I expect that faculty will find it a lot funnier than those in administration will.

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