By Meleah Maynard
Last year, University of Minnesota English Professor Julie Schumacher was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor for her novel Dear Committee Members (Anchor Books, 2014), joining the likes of previous recipients David Sedaris, Calvin Trillin, and Ian Frazier. She is the first woman ever to win.
The book features a series of letters written by disgruntled Professor Jason T. Fitger, who teaches creative writing at the aptly named Payne University. He has a penchant for inappropriately expressing his frustration with feckless students and his own life in the more than 1,300 missives he’s written for students over the years.
Here are some excerpts from the book. Read them in a place where it’s all right to laugh out loud.
For a student Fitger is genuinely trying to help:
“This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszcynski, who completed the Junior/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszcynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacles monster—sort of a fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves—is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. Though chaotic and improbable even within the fantasy/horror genre, the story was solidly constructed: dialogue consisted primarily of agonized groans and screaming; the chronology was relentlessly clear.”
For a student Fitger is genuinely not trying to help:
“Dear Admissions Committee Members—and Janet: This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of the campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes. This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that’s what you’re looking for. A transfer student, she appears to be suffering under the delusion that a recommendation from any random faculty member within our august institution will be the key to her application’s success.”
On the state of his department and the building in which it is housed:
“To the matter at hand: though English has traditionally been a largish department, you will find there are very few viable candidates capable of assuming the mantle of DGS [director of graduate studies]. In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d wager that only 10 percent of the English instruction list will answer your call for nominations. Why? First, because more than a third of our faculty now consists of temporary (adjunct) instructors who creep into the building under cover of darkness to teach their graveyard shifts of freshman comp; they are not eligible to vote or to serve. Second, because the remaining 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. Long story short: your options aren’t pretty.”
“I’m not sure that you noticed, but the Econ faculty were, in early August, evacuated from the building—as if they’d been notified, sotto voce, of an oncoming plague. Not so the faculty in English. With the exception of a few individuals both fleet of foot and quick-witted enough to claim status as asthmatics, we have been Left Behind, almost biblically, expected to begin our classes and meet with students while bulldozers snarl at the door