Saturday, September 20, 2014

When It's One of Those Days...

Sometimes we teachers just need to put things in perspective and smile. To that purpose: snippets from a new academic satire (Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, Doubleday, 2014) that is presented as a series of letters of recommendations written by a beleaguered English professor. (If you have favorite academic novels to recommend, please share the titles.)

From a letter to his department chair:
By the by:  I noticed in your departmental plan...that you intend to schedule two faculty meetings this year for the purpose of revising the department constitution. …Fair warning:  As a body we tried, in a plenary/horror session when Sarah Lempert was chair, to revise the momentous founding document on which our department depends. We argued for weeks about the existence and then the location of a particular semicolon, two senior members of the faculty--true, one of them retired and left for rehab that same semester--abandoning the penultimate meeting in tears. (If you'd like to see it, I've been keeping a log of department meetings ranked according to level of trauma, with a 1 indicating mild contentiousness, a 3 indicating uncontrolled shouting, and a 5 leading to at least one nervous breakdown and/or immediate referral to the crisis center run by the Office of Mental Health.) (p. 35-36)
From a letter to the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs:
... Finally, as for your recent memo on financial prudence:  Good lord, man. We know about the funding crunch, we aren't idiots; but we also know that your fiscal fix is being applied selectively.  For those in the sciences and social sciences, sacrifice will come in the form of fewer varieties of pâté on their lunch trays. For English: seven defections/retirements in three years and not one replaced; two graduate programs no longer permitted to accept new students; and a Captain Queeg-like sociologist at the helm. The junior faculty in our department will surely abandon their posts at the first opportunity, while the elder statesmen--I speak here for myself--may exact a more punishing revenge by refusing to retire. (p. 43)
From a letter to the HR director of an IT company to which one of the computer techs at the university has applied:
I am a professor in an English department whose members consult Tech Help…only in moments of desperation. For example, let us imagine that a computer screen, on the penultimate page of a lengthy document, winks coyly, twice, and before the "save" button can be deployed adopts a Stygian facade.  In such a circumstance one's only recourse--unpalatable though it may be--is to plead for assistance from a yawning adolescent who will roll his eyes at the prospect of one's limited capabilities and helpless despair. I often imagine that in olden days people like myself would crawl to the doorway of Tech Help on our knees, bearing baskets of food, offerings of the harvest, the inner organs of neighbors and friends--all in exchange for a tenuous promises from these careless and inattentive gods that the thoughts we entrusted to our computers will be restored unharmed. (p. 109-10)
From a letter to his dean:
I have been tapped, once again and for reasons that defy human understanding, to write a letter--during the final crisis-ridden week of the semester--on behalf of my colleague Franklin Kentrell, who has nominated himself for chair of the university curriculum committee.  Given your own recent, crucial work on the selection of dirges for the all-campus picnic, you may not have had time to grasp or appreciate the nature of Kentrell's contributions.  He is, to put it mildly, insane.  If you must allow him to self-nominate his way into a position of authority, please god let it be the faculty senate.  There, his eccentricities, though they may thrive and increase, will at least be harmless. The faculty senate, our own Tower of Babel, has not reached a decision of any import for a dozen years. (p. 164)


  1. Letter to the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning:

    I was surprised to learn through one of your many e-mail messages and blog (on the subject) that you or one (or more) of your esteemed Advisory Board members believes that teaching matters at Lincoln University. Given the profundity of the matter and the self-evidence of the assertion, I do not wish to impugn the individual or collective wisdom of the Director or her Advisory Board nor question the truth of the claim. After all, I am only an African philosopher, raised with monkeys and elephants in the jungles of Africa.

    After a number of restless days and sleepless nights, over a course of several years, I do, however, wish to know to whom teaching matters. It matters not or, if it does, very little to most of the students whose main concern is about grades and not teaching or learning. It matters not, or very little, to most of the administration whose primary concern is about power or control. I even doubt that it matters to the faculty as much as salary (does to faculty).

    Many teachers have taught different lessons to different people at different times. The point, however, is to learn. In the end, it is learning that is important and not teaching. What is the point of teaching when there is little or no learning? We learn to teach, but teach to learn! I wonder how much (positive academic) learning takes place on some college campuses, besides socializing including drinking, smoking, using smart phones and having sex.

    Safro Kwame

  2. Dear esteemed African philosopher (if I may use those four words in one phrase without internal contradictions:

    I would certainly agree that there is no point to teaching if it produces no learning. Indeed, I would say that it is an impossibility--if my student didn't learn anything I didn't teach anything no matter what I thought I was teaching. And I would agree that it's hard to compete for student interest with the non-academic side of college. But that is the challenge of teaching, one which you, as a past recipient of the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, have, I am confident, figured out.