All of us at some time or another have had to ask teachers, colleagues, or bosses for letters of reference. Usually we feel pretty confident that the person we ask will help us with a positive reference, but if we had first read Julie Schumacher’s new novel Dear Committee Members, we might not be so sanguine in our expectations.
Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel, always an enjoyable format, since letters can reveal much more of a person’s inner thoughts and motivations than he or she might ,upon reflection, wish to expose. In this slim, but meaty and often very hilarious volume we learn that Jason Fitger, professor of English at a small, undistinguished college has written in his teaching career many thousands of LORs (Letters of Reference), none of which, in any likelihood, was ever successful in impressing a future employer or college admissions officer in favor of his students.
Why such a dismal track record for Professor Fitger? Could it be that in so many cases his “go-to” method when writing LORs is to damn with the faintest of praise those students unlucky enough to ask for his help? Whether making some snide comment about their appearance, their grades on exams, or their lack of what he considers their proper intellectual curiosity, Professor Fitger seems unable to offer an entirely enthusiastic LORl for most of his former students. Even when trying his hardest to promote the career of his rare favorites, Professor Fitger cannot resist taking jabs at the students’ potential employers, insulting their businesses or their graduate programs, refusing to fill out their online referral applications, or what may be the worst, arrogantly correcting the grammar in their employment forms!
Fitger’s compulsive need to natter on and on about his pet peeves and lifelong obsessions seems to have affected his love life as well. When trying to convince a former lover or an ex-wife to help one of his best students who has lost his school funding and is desperate for aid, it can only be said that Fitger’s earnest endorsement, coupled with his clueless raking up of old arguments with the women in his life can only lead to an ironic variation of John Donne’s famous warning “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for Fitger’s unfortunate students!”
Yet, there is something oddly appealing about Fitger, despite his curmudgeonly attitude. He certainly does care about many of his students and feels real pain when one of them is forced to a heartbreaking decision. In his own tetchy but sincere way, Professor Fitger cares about the English language and all it implies about clear thinking, creativity, and meaningful communication. Is Fitger fighting a losing battle, or is his petulant voice a genuine call for action? And will Fitger’s hapless students ever learn NOT to ask him for a reference?
Dear Committee Members never answers these questions, but what fun it is to read these wry and outrageous letters. Perhaps we might even learn to be just a little more careful about whom we ask to write our own LORs!