Kitty Corner: ‘Dear Committee Members’ is a hilarious critique of academia

Dariel Fillomeno | Daily Trojan

No matter whether the trees outside are barren, draped in verdancy or gilded in brilliant flames — no matter what time of year it is, it seems we are always wallowing neck-deep in a season designed to induce stress over our professional prospects — “application season,” “recruiting season,” “internship season.” We are all trapped on this rollicking merry-go-round, clinging onto those precious documents that showcase what meager assets we have to offer: resumes, cover letters, letters of recommendation.

It is the last that has always concerned me, because with the competitive spirit growing more feverish by the day, my professors could not possibly provide a personalized ringing endorsement unless I make a concerted effort to stop by office hours and schmooze, which is not in my nature. And if the endorsement just ends up being a Mad Libs game, then what even is the point?  

My fears were somewhat allayed and exacerbated by reading “Dear Committee Members,” Julie Schumacher’s wildly funny epistolary novel. The book comprises letters of recommendation written by Jason Fitger, a professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, an aptly-monikered liberal arts college in the Midwest. Fitger is, to put it lightly, a pompous blowhard, beset by a multitude of woes.

One floor above, the economics department is getting a full facelift with all the works, while the English department hasn’t seen a single nip tuck since its installation. To add insult to injury, Fitger is forced to contend with all the asbestos and noise pollution, while inhaling the aromas of the restroom next door.

His first book was a firework, his second a firecracker and his third a sparkler — each one fizzling until his latest was practically a candle. Fitger needs a big splash, especially since he’s in the running for a promotion, for which his superiors are skeptical of  his merit.

His relationship with another faculty member has recently disintegrated, in part because he preferred to remain noncommittal while sharing a Keurig and an apartment with her. He wants to keep things civil — she less so — until he’s faced with a letter of recommendation request from her as she transfers to another institution.

The apple of his eye, a student named Darren Browles who has written a Melville-esque novel of epic proportions, can’t seem to catch a break with publishers, writers conferences or the world, really. Fitger’s glowing letters all lead to dead ends, but it’s certainly not because Browles’ work is aimless, disjointed or incoherent.  

“Dear Committee Members” is at times forlorn and occasionally pitiful, but mostly just very, very funny. It won the Thurber Prize for American Humor: But the true testament to its comedic value is the fact that it actually made me perform that ubiquitous, yet rarely accomplished acronym — LOL. “Dear Committee Members” made me want to escape academia as soon as possible, and send my poor professors, who I’m sure are equally beleaguered, an edible arrangement. It is with great pleasure that I find myself recommending this book.

Kitty Guo is a junior majoring in journalism and computational linguistics. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Kitty Corner,” runs every other Wednesday.