“The Shakespeare Requirement” is billed as a sequel to Julie Schumacher’s 2014 debut novel, “Dear Committee Members.” Schumacher wrote that highly original novel entirely in interoffice memos. She won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, amazingly the first time that award has been given to a woman.
“Dear Committee Members” was, according to the book jacket, a “cult classic of anhedonic academe.” The present novel continues that tone and story, albeit in traditional novel format. It centers around the day-to-day struggles over an academic year in a mediocre English department at mediocre Payne University. The plot is fairly minimal with the emphasis more on characters dealing with everyday academic hassles.
Newly appointed English department chair Jason Fitger has the thankless job of navigating never-ending budget cuts for his low-priority department at an undistinguished Payne University. English shares Willard Hall with the much wealthier economics eepartment, chaired by the ambitious Roland Gladwell, who is not very subtly engaged in a campaign to take over all of Willard Hall from the hapless English department. For example, he puts locked doors on English’s former meeting rooms, which he has lavishly refurnished with generous donations from economics alumni.
In navigating these politically troubled waters, Fitger must also deal with his ex-wife, Janet Matthias, who is now special assistant to his dean, Phil Hinckler, as well as with his secretary/administrative assistant, Fran Ignatieff, who has outlasted and outperformed numerous previous department chairs. A collection of disengaged, venal, unsupportive and downright crooked administrators make his job even more difficult. Whether they are missing for weeks on end collecting tarantulas in Suriname or scheming to lure promising student assistants away from the English department, administrators are clearly portrayed here as part of the problem, not the solution.
Fitger’s own staff of full-time and adjunct English faculty consists of a bunch of “characters,” to say the least. Some are nearing retirement but uninterested in pursuing that. Others have major health problems or are minimally performing, while still others are stuck on their own issues. Fitger is chronically cast with responsibilities way beyond his talents and job description, even as far as nursing a recovering colleague with no family back to health in his own house for several weeks.
The controversy of the title comes from a proposal to do away with the Shakespeare requirement for all English majors. Naturally, this deeply offends the resident Shakespeare scholar Dennis Cassovan, as he and Fitger become unwitting pawns in Machiavellian university politics from forces trying to weaken the English department. When the student newspaper and later the broader press get wind of the proposal, the unwanted publicity greatly complicates university efforts to resolve the question.
For the most part, students play a small role in this story, with most being dismissed by faculty as unmotivated and untalented. One professor describes the university library as a place where undergraduates go to nap and engage in intercourse. One of Fitger’s few promising students, Angela Vackrey, becomes unexpectedly pregnant during her freshman year and somehow is directed to Fitger for counseling about handling this. This leaves him feeling horribly inadequate and uncomfortable and also forces him to cooperate with his ex-wife and other administrators he would rather not deal with. This motley crew of reluctant supporters makes quite a presence at Angela’s wedding.
For those of us having devoted our professional lives to academia, especially at a chronically-underfunded university like K-State, this novel hits very close to home. Many times while reading it I almost laughed out loud until I realized that its satire was only marginally more extreme than the reality at many universities.
For example, Fitger and his department spend months working rather aimlessly on a Statement of Vision (SOV), which every department must write in order to continue to receive funding from their dean. The endless debates, changes and edits by staff keep this from being concluded for a long time. This would all seem so silly if I hadn’t remembered KSU departments having to do exactly the same thing some years ago. The real process was only slightly less convoluted and useless than the parody portrayed by Schumacher.
All university administrators, faculty and students aspiring to go into college teaching should read this book. It will resonate particularly with those from chronically undervalued departments. (You know who you are at KSU!) Schumacher minces no words in her satire about the abuse of adjunct faculty who have to find second jobs to get by, impoverished students who work for slave wages (or sometimes for nothing on an unpaid “internship”) and insensitive administrators who keep pushing faculty to do massive fundraising to support their basic teaching programs. This book deserves to be a classic in academic circles, that is, if it is not too painful to read.
Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.