'The Shakespeare Requirement'

Julie Schumacher resurrects Jason Fitger for a -- slightly -- more sentimental sequel to 'Dear Committee Members.' This time, the English department at fictional Payne U. faces a battle for its soul.

September 17, 2018

It's been four years since Julie Schumacher, professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, went Office Space on academic work with her hit epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members. Well, four years for us, and just a summer for snarky protagonist Jason T. Fitger, professor of creative writing and English at the fictional Payne University -- as we quickly learn in Dear Committee Members' sequel, The Shakespeare Requirement (Doubleday).

Just a summer and yet Fitger, who is in his mid-50s, has grown up -- a bit. Acting on prior advice from his ex-wife, Janet, with whom he is still hopelessly in love, Fitger runs for department chair and suddenly finds himself not just critiquing the neoliberal university but trying to help run it. It's a thankless and virtually impossible job, but it reveals new contours in a Fitger's personality and, of course, lots of material.

Fitger's central task? Herding cats (of the English professor variety) into drafting the much-delayed, departmental vision statement on which their budget depends. And so much depends on that budget, since the Darth Vader of rival department chairs, Roland Gladwell, is seeking to absorb English's already scarce resources into his evil economics empire.

In discussing the vision statement, English faculty personalities, interests and punctuation preferences clash -- an "I've been there moment" for any academic, to be sure. But the real resistance comes, somewhat unexpectedly, from the department's creaky Shakespeare scholar, Dennis Cassovan, who uncompromisingly demands that English students spend a semester studying Shakespeare. (Wasn't a manga comic version of Macbeth in a class on the graphic novel enough Shakespeare, another colleague wonders?)

"We don't have a budget, Dennis," Fitger, who wants to envision now, and "tweak" later, tells Cassovan. "You might not appreciate the fact that I'm fighting here for the department's existence."

"Perhaps you should also fight for its soul," Cassovan retorts.

And so Fitger finds himself the villain in a campus fight between "Killing Will" and "Saving Our Shakespeare," as reported by the enterprising Campus Scribe: "To be or not to be: That is the question that Payne's department of English is debating in regard to the teaching of Shakespeare."

It's an interesting place for Fitger to be, since, in other arguments about the value of humanities, he and Cassovan would be on the same side. But this is academe, where a real debate rages as to the role of the canon in English. And, as the bard might say, "Hell is empty and all the devils are here."

If Fitger is facing professional hell (however topical it is), he's facing a personal version of it, too: Janet is dating an uppity dean, he's temporarily housebound while caring for the sick colleague for whom he is inexplicably an emergency contact, and he's plagued by various physical ailments of his own. There's the cracked molar, wasp stings (an occupational hazard) and prostate-induced insomnia, for example.

All the characters in The Shakespeare Requirement are in fact very … bodied, in a particularly middle-to-older-age kind of way: colleagues experience thinning hair, gastrointestinal issues, sensitive skin, tampon wrappers attached to their shoes and even (a very well written) death. There's a dog named Rogaine, to boot. It's all somewhat tickling, as it's easy to imagine that academics are all brains. But, like any good writer, Schumacher pulls the veil way back, revealing her subjects as -- surprise -- humans.

Asked about that recently, Schumacher told Inside Higher Ed that she liked thinking of the novel as a nod to middle age.

"Fitger in particular has reached the point in his life when he feels he needs to look holistically at what he has accomplished, both personally and professionally -- it's a moment of reckoning," she said. "I am roughly his age, and feel the same impulse."

Indeed, Schumacher said that of all her characters (and The Shakespeare Requirement has many), she most identified with Fitger.

"Creating him was like molding an evil little version of myself, who was able to say things I would never say, and behave in ways I would never behave," she said. That's one of the reasons Schumacher revisited Fitger for a sequel, which abandons the slim format of Dear Committee Members, told through letters of recommendation Fitger writes, for a more traditional, longer format.

Did Fitger's lack of filter, in either book, get her in trouble with her colleagues at Minnesota? Apparently not. Schumacher said they've been "wonderfully supportive," throwing her a "coloring party" after she published Doodling for Academics, a comedic adult coloring book, in between novels, and a reception when she won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2015.

Colleagues have even "cheered me on by offering ideas for another sequel," she said. "But I think I will leave Jason Fitger where he is."

That doesn't mean there's a dearth of material in Schumacher's everyday life -- or anyone's, if they know where to look for it, she said.

"It's a matter of learning to see it, and to appreciate that amid the seriousness and the challenges, comedy can often be found lurking."


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