If only it was as funny to be a part of the dying university as it is to read about the death in Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. A lot of my job can be likened to the orchestra aboard the sinking Titanic. Rather than changing the conditions – fixing the massive hole in the hull – my job is to distract and soothe (entertain?), but without drawing too much attention to the need for distraction.
Dear Committee Members is a distraction trying very hard to draw attention to the flooding lower decks. An one-side epistolary novel, the story is the whip smart satire of the contemporary university (in particular the Humanities) attempting (badly) to grapple with declining funding, increased enrollments, ‘job-ready skills’ and the promised-not-yet-delivered panacea of technology. Taking about two hours to read, the book is the fastest way you can get a sense of what it’s like to be a humanities PhD in 2015: hilarious(ly heartbreaking/dream-crushing).
The book skewers the disparity within the university between high-profile/high-budget programs and those lesser cousins, takes on the nepotism that undergirds hiring (and tenure) processes and questions the purpose of the university as either job-skills or big ideas (and the validity of the binary itself), by marshalling forth the glut of reference letters a single professor in the creative writing program at a middling university must write over the course of one year. The letters are funny. Very funny. Funny because they show the extent of the damage and the absurdity of a single professor scooping water with a paper cup. And yet scoop he must.
I’m not sure the novel has yet committed to the need to get on the lifeboats; it holds hope for the future of the university. And because we all know I’m secretly an optimist (not a secret), and that I have a yet unshakeable (if probably pathological) belief in the university, I loved the steadfast resolve that concludes the novel. And I love the idea that satire can push us to improve, to ask us whether students might not only deserve something better, but actually get something better. So read it. Then get out and get involved with federal (provincial and local) politics. There’s an election coming and I’d rather not have to swim.