Exploring the twisted personality that can result from tenure

A lot of us would exhibit far more eccentricities if we didn’t have to go to work most days at a job where we can be fired. Those among us who need not work or have union jobs are free to let our personalities become ever more twisted as we age. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher is an interesting exploration of the mind of a mid-50s man who is a member of the college professors’ union: the American Association of University Professors. A tenured English professor, he lets his mind run free in a series of letters of recommendation to various committees.

A sampling:

I was barred from that [diversity] committee myself; my filibuster last year (I argued that the arts are a form of diversity) was sadly characterized as “divisive.”

It is 2:00 p.m., tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and here in my office the snow is accreting in small picturesque clumps against the ill-fitting window, which rattles in its Dickensian casement. The other faculty, including Ms. Handel’s advisors, have retreated like whack-a-moles into obscure campus locales or left town on vacation. Divorced, somewhat recently spurned, and therefore doomed to spend the holiday with two vegetarians from the Classics Department, I was apparently the only living member of the faculty the unfortunate Ms. Handel was able to find. That said: her proposal—entirely outside my field—appears to have merit. In particular, her examination of inventive phrases related to issues of gender identity—though of no interest to me—is probably worth sharing with a collegiate audience.

Iris Temple has applied to your MFA program in fiction and has asked me to support, via this LOR, her application. I find this difficult to do, not because Ms. Temple is unqualified (she is a gifted and disciplined writer and has published several stories in appropriately obscure venues), but because your program at Torreforde State offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind—an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students, to whom you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.

Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move to Lattimore, wherever that is. You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.

I assume he listed me as a reference because of the retirement and demise, respectively, of his two thesis advisors: it took Ruefle fourteen years to earn the doctorate. During that time he became a fixture here at Payne, beginning his studies as a vigorous man and, after marrying and acquiring multiple children, staggering across the PhD finish line in late middle age.

[recommending a former undergrad for an industry job] Belatedly it occurs to me that some members of your HR committee, a few skeptical souls, may be clutching a double strand of worry beads and wondering aloud about the practicality or usefulness of a degree in English rather than, let’s say, computers. Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrast, is a technician—a plumber clutching a single, albeit shining, box of tools.

Good luck to her and to all of us, Camilla—and congratulations on the tenure-track line. We aren’t hiring in the liberal arts at Payne, and as a result I fear we are the last remaining members of a dying profession. We who are senior and tenured are seated in the first car of a roller coaster with a broken track, and we’re scribbling and grading our way to the death fall at the top. The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus square is already fading; and, though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that I believe our mission and our way of life to have been admirable and lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending. But we are nearly at the tipping point, I suspect, and will soon be a thing of the past.

3. Can you think of any reasons why the Pentalion Corporation should not hire the applicant? Yes. Pentalion is a subsidiary of Koron Chemical, a government contractor known to be a major producer of weaponry used overseas. I would not wish any current or former student to be employed by Pentalion; once its leadership masters the basics of punctuation, it should be closed down.

April 16, 2010 Office of Mental Health and Wellness Intervention Team Attention: Suzanne Gross, MSW, LP

Dear Ms. Gross, Having disposed of the budding psychopath, Mr. Wyatt Innes, I am sending to your office with this letter in hand a human bath of tears named Ida Lin-Smith, who tells me she called your office for an appointment and was turned away. I did not inquire as to her malady, but a simple glance in her direction suffices to inform me that she requires attention. Please offer her something more lasting and substantial than guided breathing or twenty minutes with a golden retriever.

This is an innovative form for a novel and it works pretty well considering that we have access to only one character. If you liked Confederacy of Dunces you’ll probably like it (Ignatius J. Reilly had his mom to support him so he was also able to let his personality develop fully).

More: read Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher.

4 Comments

  1. admin

    July 3, 2018 @ 6:56 pm

    1

    What exactly is the job of a university “tenured English professor”? To invent new English words? Research new ways to write English? Instruct English-speaking students how to speak English?
    The biggest innovation in the field of English in the last 20 years has been to replace double-spaces that used to follow a period with a single-space – wow!

  2. Matt K

    July 3, 2018 @ 7:35 pm

    2

    Sounds a little bit like the style of “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”. Good books.

  3. Jdhzzz

    July 3, 2018 @ 9:00 pm

    3

    Ugh. I will die on the hill of 2 spaces after a period. You can tell me the computer will insert some extra space for me, but my aging eyes say otherwise.

  4. Tom

    July 8, 2018 @ 5:47 pm

    4

    “wondering aloud about the practicality or usefulness of a degree in English rather than, let’s say, computers. Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrast, is a technician—a plumber clutching a single, albeit shining, box of tools.”

    If your company needs someone with expertise in post-modernism, marxism, post-colonialism and/or queer studies, though lacking a professional certification, then look no further.

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