A bitterly cold evening kept some folks away, but a small group of FYI Book Club readers this week burrowed into “Dear Committee Members,” Julie Schumacher’s novel told entirely through one professor’s letters of recommendation.
The Women’s Center of the University of Missouri-Kansas City was the ideal setting for this slim, speedy book that calls out — skewers, actually — the challenges facing higher education.
“This book is like reading the Chronicle of Higher Education, but funnier,” said Brenda Bethman, Women’s Center director.
The book’s missives are penned by creative writing professor Jay Fitger, who now channels his own bitter witticisms into letters of recommendation for students he barely knows, colleagues he despises, an ex-wife in law school admissions and a former girlfriend in student affairs.
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The curmudgeonly protagonist uses the format to bemoan the state of the humanities on college campuses as well as the job prospects for his students.
“Many of these issues show up in the corporate workplace, too,” said Kathy Lindsay of Kansas City. “I was thinking of computer tech services, policy changes, how people talk about colleagues. You see this in the business world.”
Readers enjoyed how Schumacher was able to craft Fitger’s character, advance the various plot threads and show how Fitger changes.
Bethman pointed out that most professors don’t drop personal details in their letters of recommendations, no matter how well the professor ties them to the subject at hand.
“There are some professors who use a letter of recommendation to push their own agendas, but it doesn’t happen often,” Bethman said. “I like how the author used this technique to reveal details about Jay’s life.”
Lindsay felt Fitger was at his most vulnerable in one of the last letters in the book, a recommendation for a former student applying for a job at a specialty boutique in a vacation spot from Fitger’s childhood.
“He went completely off track in that letter, but we get to see that deep down, Jay cares,” she said.
Lindsay also noted that by the end of the book readers see growth in Fitger.
“I think he’s had a life lesson by looking back and regretting some of what he’s done,” she said. “I had a feeling by the end that Jay regretted not giving his students more constructive criticism or advice.”
No doubt the letters were sometimes far-fetched, overly personal and hilarious, readers said.
“Many of these letters are Jay asking for favors or favored treatment for students and colleagues,” Lindsay said. “Apparently he’s angered many folks on campus and his postscripts ask for forgiveness. He never seemed to get the idea that he needed to be nicer in person to people.”
“Some professors with tenure don’t need to be nice to anyone,” Bethman said wryly. “Jay obviously has tenure.”
As one reader noted, “Higher education might be serious business, but this book finds all the humor in and out of the classroom.”
Kaite Stover is director of readers’ services for the Kansas City Public Library.
FYI Book Club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for the next selection, “Against Football” by Steve Almond, to be introduced in FYI.