Absurd academic life
BOOKS | The adventures of a curmudgeonly professor
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Universities ought to be bastions of scholarship and innovation where young people grow in wisdom and gain the skills they need to become productive citizens. As often as not, higher education encourages indolence in students and incompetence in administration and faculty.
Julie Schumacher, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, once again exposes the absurdities of university life with her new novel The English Experience (Doubleday 2023). The book continues the adventures of the curmudgeonly Jason Fitger, English professor at the fictitious Payne University.
Schumacher’s first novel featuring Fitger was the brilliant Dear Committee Members (2014), winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. The novel is composed entirely of rambling recommendation letters from the disgruntled professor. Schumacher’s follow-up, The Shakespeare Requirement (2018) possesses a more traditional narrative structure that follows Fitger’s awkward interactions with colleagues and students. Both novels involve institutional battles over limited funds and bemoan the sorry state of the humanities in higher education.
This third novel sends the unenthusiastic professor on a last-minute study abroad trip to London. Fitger tends to think he’s better at navigating life than he actually is, but even he can’t deny he’s ill-prepared to lead 11 undergraduates abroad for three weeks. The students have little in common, other than a dislike for writing the essays Fitger assigns them.
Schumacher recaptures some of the epistolary magic found in Dear Committee Members by interrupting the narrative with the students’ essays. As a veteran of the university classroom, I can attest that Schumacher has an uncanny ability for mimicking stream-of-consciousness undergraduate prose with its banality and inappropriate tone.
Speaking of inappropriate, both The English Experience and The Shakespeare Requirement contain numerous vulgarities. Despite some crude talk, which is frankly all too common in American universities, Schumacher manages to infuse her stories about the farcical Fitger with moments of grace and redemption.
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