The coronavirus has disrupted the lives of almost everyone on earth. People are stopping much of our daily routines and canceling travel plans, large and small. Practically every sector of society is adjusting, with many canceling activities. As people’s time opens up, our options for spending time are drying up. March Madness and other sporting events have been canceled. A tide of leisure venues are shutting down, including restaurants, gyms, community centers, and other cultural institutions involving public gatherings. Some experts recommend that we even refrain from getting together with friends.
This is a good time to read at home. Satire may be especially therapeutic for our sanity and souls.
I recommend Dear Committee Members, a snort-out-loud novel about an academic year in the life of a cynical, curmudgeonly English professor at a Midwestern university. Writing letters of recommendation fills most of his time, and the book is a collection of 67 such letters.
What makes them delicious is that, rather than writing the tactful circumloqutions that we specialize in, the protagonist says what he really thinks, with some priceless post-scripts and asides about academic life and society generally. The result is non-stop mirth.
I listened to the Audible version, which I heartily recommend because of the narrator’s exquisite performance. It clocks in at just under four hours.
Almost any faculty member would recognize dysfunctions of academic life portrayed in Dear Committee Members. Humanities professors, and English professors in particular, would identify with the humiliations they face, though law professors (especially ADR, clinical, and legal writing faculty) would “appreciate” the Catch-22 aspects of our lives.
University faculty – especially those on tenure tracks – generally have much better working conditions than people in most other occupations. So this is not an invitation to a pity party about our wretched existences.
Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect on the reality of our lives – and enjoy some diversion from retooling courses for the new world of widespread online education.
Virtually yours, in seclusion,
PS. One of the things that I especially liked was the protagonist’s indignant refusal to complete forms requiring him to rank the recommendee in the top 1%, 5%, 10% etc. of various criteria. When I was presented with such requests, I ignored them and included the following language in my recommendations: “I have not completed the rankings for Ms. X because I have a general practice of refraining from doing so, and I trust that you will not negatively evaluate her application because of that. For many years, I directed the Masters of Law Program at the Law School and I discontinued using rankings in our application process because I found that they were very unreliable. They invite misrepresentation and punish candor.” Yet these systems remain SOP in some academic units.
PPS. If you don’t like Dear Committee Members, you really won’t like the sequel, The Shakespeare Requirement, which continues the survey of the sociopathologies of “higher” education. In Shakespeare, the protagonist becomes the chair of the department. What could be funny about that?
PPPS. This is a great time to read the Theory-of-Change book, which you can download for free (!). You might want to focus on the technology and legal education sections.