On a recent trip to The University of Georgia, sitting and waiting in the car for my daughter to finish a class, I read Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Connections flooded my brain because my true start into Higher Education began with my doctoral work at The University of Georgia and my luck at obtaining a graduate teaching assistantship. Dear Committee Members is described on the book jacket in the following manner:
“Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished college in the Midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novel. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s “Bartleby by Scrivener.”
“In short, Fitger’s life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a deries of hilarious letters of recommendation that he is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies.”
Of course, I was tempted to read this little jewel. I felt an instant kinship with Jason Fitger who was required to write endless recommendation letters while maneuvering through all the baggage of higher education. I have written some letters gleefully, so happy to describe the stellar qualities of a student or colleague. However, many times I have suggested to students and even colleagues, I might not be the best person to write a letter for them because I could not bring myself the say the things one normally says in a letter of recommendation. I do not have the bravado of Dr. Fitger who has no qualms about telling the truth in wonderful language I only wish I could use. The pithy letters Jason T. Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing/English writes for students and colleagues are just so on target. I laughed, but then the writing was a little close to the bone, so in some places, I felt sad. I have been in higher education more years than I want to admit. I have written many letters, faced various budget cuts, struggled with reduced resources, and watched faculty members lose some of their academic drive. I have wondered about my own role as an academic and mid-level academic manager. Many of my own struggles I found in the letters written by Dr. Fitger.
A few years back, a fellow professor suggested I read Straight Man by Richard Russo. Straight Man tells the struggles of a professor who is weighed down with his dueling roles of being a Department Chair and a faculty member no longer in the bloom of his academic life. One of the parts of the books still in my mind and shows itself when I am in a faculty meeting is the passage where he laments what he could have accomplished with all the time he has spent in endless meetings. He wonders how many poems he could have written. At the time, I was serving as a Department chair, and I could relate to many of the laments of Dr. William Henry Devereaux, Jr. I even went through a period of time where I tried to write some verse while attending meetings. I was not very successful, but it gave me a secret giggle.
Readers who engage with fiction and non-fiction usually do so because they make connections. In literacy circles, we like to talk about Text-to-Self connections, Text-to-World Connections, and Text-to-Text connections. The similarity between the protagonists, settings, and tone of Dear Committee Members and Straight Man made it very easy for me to make all three types of connections. I found Dear Committee Members at our on-campus library at Hopkinsville Community College. When I read the book’s description inside the front cover, I immediately felt it was a book for me because I was instantly connected to the topic.
Connections to Dear Committee Members came full circle when Dr. Jodi Patrick Holschuh, a graduate student who attended The University of Georgia a few years after I did and who was lucky enough to have Dr. Sherrie Nist-Olejnik as a major professor, proclaimed on Facebook the need for all of us to read Dear Committee Members. Once again, I am reminded how a book can help us make a connection to our own lives and make a connection with others.