Letter of recommendation season is upon us, and I helped get myself in the mood by reading Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, a novel that is written entirely as a series of letters of recommendation that an English professor writes for different people. It’s a tough constraint for a novel, as it requires complete abandonment of the advice to authors to “show, don’t tell.” The book also wavers in its purpose between being an academic farce, a la Straight Man, and something far more somber.
But the protagonist is very well-drawn as an aging professor who no longer cares if he stays on point when writing letters and is nevertheless often quite effective because of it. And the letters include all kinds of great bits on life in the academy. I’ll include three favorites after the jump:
In a letter the newly appointed chair of the English department:
God knows what enticements were employed during the heat of summer to persuade you— a sociologist!— to accept the position of chair in a department not your own, an academic unit whose reputation for eccentricity and discord has inspired the upper echelon to punish us by withholding favors as if from a six-year-old at a birthday party: No raises or research funds for you, you ungovernable rascals! And no fudge before dinner! Perhaps, as the subject of a sociological study, you will find the problem of our dwindling status intriguing. [...] 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.
About the usual caterer his university uses:
Catfish Catering— all too familiar to those of us immured in the culinary universe of inexpensive university-sanctioned cuisine— is one of the most gruesome sources of provender on the planet. Oil (god only knows whether you’re using K-Y Jelly, lard, or some less well recognized lubricant) appears to be your primary ingredient regardless of the category of food. Last year at the banquet honoring the installation of our new provost, I made the mistake (yes, it was my error, I admit it) of consuming a modest portion of tilapia from the groaning board; I was ill for three days. Substances I would never knowingly introduce to my body had apparently proliferated within it and were then rapidly expelled in unspeakable gouts. I counted myself fortunate, at the end of a week of gastrointestinal crisis, to be able to walk.
About the general reduction of resources to the humanities:
We who are senior and tenured are seated in the first car of a roller coaster with a broken track, and we’re scribbling and grading our way to the death fall at the top. The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus square is already fading; and, though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that I believe our mission and our way of life to have been admirable and lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending.