“Let the Academic Year Begin!” The Work of Humanities in the Age of Neoliberalism

Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members. New York: Doubleday, 2014. Pp. 180, $22.95 hb.

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“Under whose aegis was it decided that Economics and English should share a building? Were criteria other than the alphabet considered?” —Professor Jay Fitger, Dear Committee Members

“There is no such thing as a self-made man. Every businessman has used the vast American infrastructure, which the taxpayers paid for, to make his money.” —George Lakoff, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

It is, admittedly, a bit of a bilious hyperbole for Jay Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing and English in Julie Schumacher’s crisp new novel Dear Committee Members to ascribe nothing but the alphabet in common between the disciplines of Economics and English. Not to begrudge our colleagues in the pecuniary sciences their comfortable quarters in academe, but there is some truth to Fitger’s allusion to the role money plays in the ultimate aims of the two disciplines. After all, the general public, whose voices our elected representatives purport to adhere to in making their higher education appropriations, is less skeptical of Economics than they are of the uses of an English degree. English, the Fine Arts, and Foreign Languages are particularly maligned in popular imagination as a waste of time and money. On academic fairs days and majors days on most university campuses across the nation, faculty representatives are encouraged to speak of the afterlife of an English degree, which always boils down to only one question, really: how much money can you make with a degree in English? What kind of jobs can you get with a degree in English? Is it a meal ticket?

At the institution where I teach, for instance, I answer this question from skeptical parents and the dwindling numbers of freshmen interested in the English major. I tell them about all the usual harbors we English majors visit: graduate school and the doctorate, teaching, technical writing, business writing, creative writing, publishing and the editing industry, law school, journalism etc. Lately, I have begun to hear myself say these things to my watchful audience, and it has struck me with renewed conviction that I and my discipline, English, are not evaluated for our merits by my peers, or my students, or any intellectual, or aesthetic criteria anymore. Our worth is assessed by another set of metrics dictated by those who do not teach, who do not learn, who are outside academe, and whose only business with education is education as business, as an economic exchange. Jay Fitger’s question is right on the mark.

Schumacher, a professor of Creative Writing and English at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus, has set this delightful romp of a novel in the Midwestern campus of Payne University, whose motto, according to Fitger should be “Teach ‘til it Hurts” (22) in the years 2009-2010. The timing of this epistolary novel is crucial in appreciating its matter. The troubles faced by Fitger and the English department are framed against the aftermath of the recession of 2008 when the government bailed out the banks and bankrupted higher education and social and human services in the process. A brief digression on the 2008 recession and its aftermath for higher education is apropos of the novel here.

A 2014 study of funding cuts to public higher education by Demos entitled “The Great Cost Shift Continues” indicates that nationwide, all states, with the exception of the oil boom state of North Dakota, responded to the deleterious effects of the 2008 financial downturn by cutting state appropriations for higher education budgets with an average of 25 percent decline in per student funding between 2006-07 and 2011-12 (Hiltonsmith, and Draut 2015).  As reported in Demos, there is an element of human will and a paradigm change invoked in these cuts to higher education funding. The recession acted as a catalyst to redefine the relationship between the people and the government, perhaps irreversibly now. The recession sanctioned states to disinvest in higher education during economic downturns, but it also made it possible for states to affirm their inability or unwillingness to restore funding levels during times of economic expansion (Hiltonsmith and Draut). Average tuition at 4-year public schools now consumes more than 15 percent of the median household income in most states, while average total cost including room and board consumes more than one third of the median household income. The average student tuition rates have increased by 20 percent in the years since the recession, while Arizona and California have raised it by more than 66 percent (Hiltonsmith and Draut). Public higher education can bankrupt you.

Neoliberalism, with its soft misleading inclusion of the word “liberal” in it, is the ideological and epistemological scaffolding that holds up the abandonment of the common people by the government, leaving them to fight for survival at the mercy of unfiltered market processes. The neoliberal whitewashing of public higher education has come with its own terminology; for instance, the previous chancellor of the affluent North Dakota University system was referred to as “a true CEO” by his colleagues in the legislature (Kiley 2015). A Fall 2011 special issue of Representations indeed devoted an entire issue of the journal to assess the present and future of the public university, while making the case that the current devaluation of the humanities is symptomatic of the broader downgrading of public education itself. Thus it is perhaps only those of us in the humanities who have already faced the bulk of funding cuts who can clearly see the framework of our destruction, and seeing through our destruction, perceive the dismantling of the public good enshrined in the public university. In other words, as the noted cognitive linguist George Lakoff has said, “Know your values and frame the debate.” The abjection of the humanities is not about lack of funding. It would be a costly mistake to accept this explanation. It is also about the erosion of public good, and a betrayal of the common people by a government now largely in the grips of neoliberal market forces. It is about changing the experience, meaning, and value of public education. Dear Committee Members joins all of us who asks this question: why are the humanities/liberal arts in higher education undervalued, underfunded, and underappreciated in the current cultural context?

In “Humanists and the Public University,” Colleen Lye and her colleagues at UC Berkeley argue that while the intellectual genealogies of neoliberalism stretch back to the 1940s, its political mobilization by the new right may be traced to the 1980s. I would add that neoliberalism is no longer the exclusive weapon the new right; in the twenty-first century, it has crossed boundaries across party lines nationally. Couched falsely and duplicitously in the register of “entitlement” and “privilege,” neoliberal policies have divided person against person and drained the public collective of our will to work towards the public good. Every institution that keeps as its aim the augmentation of the public good is its casualty. Rob Horning’s summation of the casualties of neoliberal policies in “Precarity and ‘affective resistance,’” could have been custom-made for the humanities, particularly, the liberal arts in the age of neoliberalism:

The state tries to offload as much of the responsibility for maintaining a minimum standard of well-being for its citizens, while corporations simultaneously shift as much of the economic risk to their workers, offering little in the way of benefits, pensions, and security. Individuals are expected to bear the burdens imposed by recession and fend for themselves as much as possible in the economy, even as the destructured work sphere that results from post-Fordist reforms demands an intensified cooperation among workers. The stress of having to constantly cooperate and compete with coworkers at the same time is just another of the emotional burdens that constitute precarity.

Payne University and Jay Fitger in Dear Committee Members, as well as many of us who work in the humanities/liberal arts, carry this “emotional burden of precarity.” Schumacher’s novel is a detailed exploration of the collapse of secure selfhood—the creation and nurturance of which is the only aim of the Humanities—as market forces from the outside invade it in an attempt to destroy the public fabric.

This slim novel of 180 pages contains about 90 letters Jay Fitger writes to a varied group of addressees that range from university colleagues such as Deans, Provosts, Chairs, and fellow department members to recommendation letters for students—English majors—seeking employment in non-English professions such as Catfish Catering and paintball industries, as well as graduate school admissions in law, public policy and medicine. Fitger also writes several letters to the prestigious Bentham Literary Residency Program on behalf of one specific graduate student, Darren Browles. Under Fitger, Browles has completed a manuscript entitled Accountant in a Bordello, a retelling of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener set in a legal brothel in Nevada, where the main character, Herman Crown, spends “his days tallying expenses, passing up opportunities at wealth and advancement, eschewing friendships, and generally maintaining, amidst the titillating hubbub of his surrounding, a dispassionate isolation, an existential solitude” (23). If we may ascribe a broad plot to Dear Committee Members, Browles is the protagonist of this plot.

Fitger’s voice is alternately sardonic, bilious, raging, ranting, and always sadly humorous. While it is inevitable that some comparisons might be made between Saul Bellow’s Moses E. Herzog and Jay Fitger, these should immediately stop at the common epistolary style. Fitger’s letters are always sent and they are letters with a purpose. Jay Fitger writes not for himself but for others. This is a crucial difference. Here is Fitger describing the English department’s provenance to Associate Vice Provost Samuel Millhouse, who should already know this:

Have you entered Willard Hall lately? In case, over there among the functional radiators and other amenities left in Lefferts, you’ve forgotten that English faculty members are living in a construction zone, allow me to give you a virtual tour. The front and back doors of our building are blocked—sealed and crisscrossed with yellow tape as if to indicate a crime scene—so you must enter through the basement. But don’t use the elevator, a nightmarish herk-and-jerk contraption known to hijack its occupants and leave them stranded midfloor. You can’t access the second (ECON) floor in any case: a silken banner advises you to PARDON OUR MESS!—a euphemistic reference to the fact that workers equipped with respirators are spilling toxins onto our heads in the servants’ quarters, where, once you overlook the chipped and ancient linoleum and the cracks in the wallboard, you will find a sign that welcomes visitors, eloquently, to the Department of ENGLI_H. (42)

The missing letter in ENGLI_H is emblematic of everything English does not have at Payne University. The privation extends to lack of technical support, lack of tenure lines —“seven defections/retirements in three years and not one replaced; two graduate programs no longer permitted to accept new students” (43)—and most urgently, lack of morale, and lack of opportunities for students. The various recommendation letters Fitger meticulously writes and catalogs might sound wacky and unreal, but it is no laughing matter. Schumacher voices the popular (mis?)perceptions of the “usefulness” of the English degree, but she also uses the letters to chart a course through the whole raison d’etre of the English major, the types of students who sign up for it as their chosen discipline, little insights into their core personalities, their foibles, their aggression or timidity as the case may be, and the miniscule few for whom it really is the vocation, in the absence of which their lives will become unmoored. Darren Browles is one such character and his tragic ending as charted through Fitger’s increasingly urgent letters to literary residency programs around the country asking for financial support for Browles strike at the core of the complex web of factors that make a career in the Humanities and the Arts a truly precarious enterprise in the current academic climate.

Schumacher deftly satirizes the egotistical grudges that are renowned amongst and between established writers through the unavoidable asides that surface in Fitger’s letters to his own classmates—most of them now comfortably ensconced in various writing programs around the country—in what was known as the infamous “Seminar” with H. Reginald Hanf, a towering ghostly patriarchal figure with whom all students have maintained an incestuous, convoluted, and contentious relationship even into their professional adulthood:

Eleanor has been stonewalling an advisee I’ve recommended to Bentham, and I wonder if she’s talked to you. Good god, it’s been twenty-two years since the Seminar. Yes, Reg admired my work. Yes, he helped me publish Stain and threw His Royal Weight behind the book. I didn’t ask him to prefer my writing to yours or Troy’s or Eleanor’s or Ken’s or even MTV’s. (Who’d have thunk MTV would marry a vet and turn into a shrink?) But Eleanor is still carving voodoo dolls in my likeness. Are we going to spend the rest of our days in the shadow of H. Reginald Hanf and the Seminar, those few (admittedly powerful) years ever dogging our steps? (33)

In addition to this professional and academic cold war, there is a marvelous subplot involving Fitger, his ex-wife Janet, Director of Admissions at Payne Law School, and his recently defected girlfriend Carole Samarkind of the Student Affairs office, and a “Reply All” university email communications mishap. One might as well accept the university as an extended family with several dysfunctional networks stretching in all directions, out into eternity.

Above all, what makes Dear Committee Members a timely novel is the subjective certainty of Jay Fitger, in the face of absolute precarity, about the rightness of his calling; that being an English professor, being a creative writer cannot and will not be blown away like dust from new construction sites. As long as human imagination is born, there will be art, there will be literature, and, as Fitger writes his old comrade Eleanor Acton, there will be voices of resistance rising against the silencing of “believing in, and promoting, things that don’t yet exist” (179). Schumacher’s novel joins all the voices that believe in the Humanities as the only discipline that has the power to offer an enduring rebuttal to the garish offers of short-term marketability. Fitger’s concluding thoughts describe the stuff of this hard-pressed critique: “I can already envision the moment when I open Troy’s new book and find within it, among the acknowledgments, your name and mine; and we both know how beautiful the book will be, how clearly it will speak to something within us—some previously unarticulated thought or reflection that, once recognized, we will never want to be without again” (179). Worthy thoughts, for disheartened times, as we begin each new academic year.

Gayatri Devi, Associate Professor, Department of English, Lock Haven State University 

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