Monday 14 August 2017

Book Review: Dear Committee Members, Kindly Go Fuck Yourselves

Dear Readers,

I hope this missive finds you in "fighting form," rather than in the usual post-holiday sunburnt torpor, and eagerly awaiting my recommendation for your final summer read. (Ha!)  I acquiesce to the clamouring demand for my venerable opinion and with suitably false humility suggest via this LOR that you slurp up "Dear Committee Members" by Julie Schumacher as your last beach treat of the season.  It will go down as easily and quickly as a popsicle melting in the August heat.  You will find its taste more tart than sweet—definitely a tangy lime rather than a syrupy strawberry—with a bitter finish akin to licking the drips from your hand and finding they taste like acrid sunscreen and salty sweat.

This tidy tome comprises a representative sample of a year's worth of correspondence (entirely one-sided) from a tenured professor of creative writing and English at the not-subtly-but-nonetheless-aptly named Payne University, a second-tier school in the Midwest that is tottering on the threshold of tumbling into the third tier, despite its best efforts to attract students by the addition of yoga studios, climbing walls, and rampant grade inflation.

It seems trite to call our prolific letter writer curmudgeonly but the term is a perfect fit.  He is inopportunely implored to write LORs for students, faculty, and staff when they apply for jobs, grad school admissions, scholarships, and myriad other opportunities to advance their careers or avoid homelessness.  His charming quirk is that rather than say no when he cannot in good conscious write a positive recommendation, he simply writes a sardonic one.  This practice occasionally backfires on him, such as when he is eager to get rid of his department's rude and unhelpful IT specialist but his honest LORs preclude the fellow being hired away.

Not limiting himself to a cheerfully blunt assessment of his subject's shortcomings, he adds fulsome commentary on the potential employer, the job, and the remuneration offered.  When he has exhausted those topics, he launches into scathing indictments of the state of the humanities.  For anyone even tangentially affiliated with academia today, his withering denunciations will resonate.

"Sociology has gone the way of poli-sci and econ, now firmly in the clutches of rabid number crunchers who have abandoned or forgotten the link between their abstruse theoretical musings and the presence of human beings on the planet's surface."

On sending a student to mental health services: "Please offer her something more lasting and substantial than guided breathing or twenty minutes with a golden retriever."

Larded onto a LOR for a former student who wishes to enter a seminary: "Literature has served me faithfully (no pun intended) as an ersatz religion, and I would wager that the pursuit of the ineffable via aesthetics in various forms has saved as many foundering souls as a belief in god."

"Mr. Napp demonstrates all the winsome ebullience one expects these days from a young person more inclined to socialise with machines."

"Deny him this fellowship and he will undoubtedly turn his hand to something more lucrative, probably hawking illegal substances between the athletic facilities and the Pizza Barn."

"May the bump in salary allow her to avoid scurvy by adding fruit to her diet once a week."

The key to our professor's caustic snark is tenure.  He is able to say with impunity what others can only think privately or whinge about whilst nursing a beer with friends between adjunct gigs.

The one weakness in the book is its reliance on the professor's misbegotten love life as fodder for much of its humour and poignancy.  If his divorces, dalliances, and affairs had been less predictable, his epistolary musings may have been less cringe-inducing.  But the plight of the self-absorbed writer who dissolves into middle-aged bitterness and self-pity when he realises the limits of his talents has been done to death.  Of course women leave him once they see the man behind the curtain and his flagellations appear self-serving and passive-aggressive.  His attempts to make nice with his exes in an it's-all-water-under-the-bridge manner are undercut by the obvious insincerity of his apologies.

But the pleasures of the cutting sarcasm and shameless snark in his correspondence more than compensate for any shortcomings.

I will leave you with this excerpt from his response to a request to serve as department chair:

"…the upper echelons of the administration justifiably detest me; because my colleagues view me as a cantankerous pariah; and because, given my stance on several university-wide issues, I would consider the position a significant ethical and even spiritual compromise."

Your Anonymous Blogger Who Doesn't Have Tenure

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