Old Whine in New Wineskins

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A PROFESSOR REVEALED THROUGH HIS LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION. Popular culture is replete with portraits of caring, dedicated, and inspirational prep school teachers from Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr Chips to Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society. And there are legions of film depictions of heroic teachers working in tough, inner city schools from James Olmos in Stand and Deliver to Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. When fiction writers, playwrights, and screen writers turn their attention to college level teachers, especially English teachers, the vision turns darker. Thus we have Alan Bates in Butley, a film adaptation of Simon Gray’s stage play, Michael Douglas in Wonderboys, an adaptation from Michael Chabon’s novel, and Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale.

Add to this list of disgruntled, cynical college English teachers the name of Jason “Jay” Fitger, the centerpiece of Julie Schumaker’s Dear Committee Members. He’s a familiar type. He heads a creative writing program at a not so fashionable Midwest university and, like many of his clan, he feels that the humanities are dreadfully underfunded and the university has lost its soul. Given to hyperbole (one of the many uses of a Ph.D. in English), he has a whole bag of grievances against university administration and his colleagues, both inside and outside of the department. His department is so dysfunctional that the dean has appointed a sociologist to serve as its temporary chair. He is daily reminded of the marginalization of his department. While elaborate renovations takes place in the halls and offices of the Economics Department one floor above, the English faculty must put up with “an intermittent water supply, semi-operational light fixtures, mephitic odors, and corridors foggy with toxins” on the basement level.

Adding to his ennui is the knowledge that his own writing career peaked twenty years earlier and his books are now out of print or in the remainder bin. He periodically indulges in nostalgic memories of his time in a Master of Fine Arts program, where he met his wife, from whom he is recently divorced. His hopes for a relationship with former MFA peer Carol “The Beneficent” Samarkind, who directs the Academic Fellowship program, are ruined when he hits Reply to All button on his e-mail to his ex-wife proposing that he rekindle the relationship.

It’s Schumaker’s discovery that a lot can be learned about professors, or most anyone, by perusing their letters of recommendation. Jason Fitger claims to have written more than 1,300 and Schumaker has pilfered the LOR folder on his hard-drive to present us with almost 100 of the more interesting ones. He frequently includes a barb in the Salutation or Complimentary Close. He identifies himself as a Haz Mat Specialist or as a member of the Winners Circle of the American Letters of Recommendation Society

He’s half-heartedly written many letters of recommendation for students seeking summer employment at paintball emporiums, catering companies, and liquor stores. For these “C” level students he’s perfected the art of damning with feint praise. He struggles more with recommendations for recent graduates with degrees in English and post-grad experience in Teach for America who must settle for jobs in data entry or childcare. In a LOR that the writes for a female English major who wants to do an unpaid internship for a State Senator, he reminds the legislator’s staff that the legislator has consistently voted against all bills to increase government support for higher education.

One thread of continuity in the novel is provided by a series of letters written on behalf of a quirky but brilliant creative writer who needs financial support to continue the development of his craft. Yes, part of Fitger’s efforts are self-serving for he believes that if his student can get accepted in a prestigious program, he might use the success to argue that his own program should be sustained. He invests in Darren Browles career because he sees a bit of himself in the struggling writer. One of the few somber notes in this satiric novel is provided by this plot line. Browles’s fate is wrapped up in that of Vivian Zellers, a wunderkind, for whom Fitger writes letters of recommendation to law school, med school and to the Literary Residence Program to which Browles has applied. Accepted by all, she choose to develop her creative writing.

His letters are rarely direct, though he knows how to be brief. He will sermonize for the employer-recipient, pointing out to the Human Resources director of Addistar Network, Inc. that English majors possess sophisticated analytical skills and that the computer major is “just a plumber clutching a single, albeit shiny, box of tools.” When writing to his ex-wife who chairs the committee for law school admission, he delivers news about old friends. When writing on behalf of a scatter-brained student who has failed to provide him with any information about the job for which he is applying, he instructs the recipient that students “post drunken photos of themselves at parties and…emit tweets and send all sorts of intimate pronouncements into the void – but they are incapable of returning a simple phone call.” For the owner of The Nut House in the Glass Lake resort community – one of his students has applied – he spends more time rhapsodizing on the summers he spent there than on the thin merits of his student. In a letter to the dean, he suggests that one of his inept colleagues not be given a position on the curriculum committee as he desires but rather be assigned to the Faculty Senate, “our Tower of Babel, [which] has not reached a decision of any import for a dozen years.” Most of the fun of the novel is found in these loopy digression.

These Letters of Recommendation are a mash-up of sales pitch, personal journal, bitch session, and university gossip sheet. University professors may not share Fitger’s conviction that they write LORs “from the prow of the Titanic.” And they most likely will not respond to the rhetorical challenges of this writing genre in the way that Fitger does. But professors and those who wonder about them will be given a comical insight into the way one professor think. It’s so much better than reading the chatter from the Sony Studio executive about the untalented spoiled brat Angela Jolie.

 

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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