Satirical Takes on Higher Ed and Why They Matter
Scroll to the end to see a list of campus satires recommended by our guests this week.
What is your favorite satirical take on higher education? Maybe Jane Smiley’s “Moo.” Or Don DeLillo’s “White Noise”? Or it could be the movie “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield. Let’s face it, there are almost endless works of fiction poking fun at academic life.
As the summer ends and we head into the fall semester, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate this rich tradition of parody of academic life and look at what these works say about the big challenges facing higher education today. Because maybe one of the best ways to call broader attention to the serious issues we talk about each week on this podcast is through a bit of humor.
Today we’re going to talk to three different writing professors with something to say about satire. One is the author of an acclaimed academic satire. Another did an unusual work of satire on Twitter to call attention to the plight of adjuncts. And the third has a suggestion for the academic satire that he wishes someone out there would write.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
We start with Julie Schumacher. Her most recent book, “The Shakespeare Requirement,” was first published last year and recently came out in paperback. It was one of the Washington Post’s most notable works of fiction in 2018, and the New Yorker magazine said the book “burns with moral anger” about the real-life woes of the academy.
The novel is set at a fictional liberal arts college in the midwest, Payne University, where the English department is falling apart, both literally and in spirit. Its offices are underheated, full of rodents or wasps, and it doesn’t have a budget because the faculty can’t agree on a one-page statement of vision for why they even exist. And that’s largely because its professors are locked in a dispute over whether or not to require Shakespeare. Meanwhile, the economics department, which shares a building with English, just got renovated thanks to private gifts and is led by a cut-throat, metrics-loving chair looking to kick English out of the building and expand the economics department’s power.
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"The Shakespeare Requirement" is actually a sequel to an even more inventive book by Schumacher, called “Dear Committee Members,” which won Schumacher the Thurber Prize for American Humor, making her the first woman ever to win that honor. That one centers on the very same English department and its cast of characters, but it’s written entirely in the form of letters of recommendation that one English professor writes, endlessly, for his students and colleagues, and you quickly get the sense that writing all these form letters leaves this professor no time to think much about his teaching or his own writing.
I was able to sit down with Julie Schumacher in her faculty office at the University of Minnesota, where she is a professor of English and creative writing. It’s actually a pretty nice office—though she says she used to be in a crummier space in a basement that helped inspire parts of the novel.
My biggest surprise in talking with Schumacher is that she does not see herself as a comic writer and didn’t start out with any intention of writing a work of satire.
Julie Schumacher: I started writing “Dear Committee Members” because during an undergraduate class I was talking about form and telling the students, "You can start a short story based on a form. You can choose recipes from a grandparent or a series of emails between friends." One of the students said to me, "Well, what would your form be if you were to start with a form?" And I said, being kind of facetious, "I would start with a letter of recommendation because I write so many of them." And I told that to a colleague who said, "You know that's an interesting idea." It hadn't really occurred to me. I never considered myself a humor writer, or a satirist, or either those things, but I decided if I were going to write something in the form of a letter of recommendation, it would naturally lead to some fun about academia.
EdSurge: Still the books are so full of life and energy that I asked her if it came from any pent up frustration with how much bureaucracy was involved in her own job as a professor.
Schumacher: Well in both books the main character is Jason Fitger. He's a professor of English at Payne University in the Midwest. And it is amazing how quickly his voice came to me. I very much hope I am not Jason Fitger. On the other hand, there are things that he says that have crossed my mind and I thought, "OK, I would never say that. That would be rude, that would be inappropriate, that would be ridiculous or absurd." And I just let Jason Fitger say whatever those things were, whatever came into my head that I would squelch quickly because it would not be the right thing to say. He was able to say them. It was great to make a sort of evil little version of myself and let him say what he liked.
EdSurge: So, what does this evil little version of Schumacher end up saying? Well, the letters in “Dear Committee Members” are constantly making fun of the act of writing letters of recommendation as you might guess, and they're often full of social commentary on things like how different the work going on in an English class is from the jobs that some of this professor's students apply for after they leave college. Take this example, where Fitger writes to a grocery store on behalf of a student applying for a job there.
“Dear Ms. Ingersoll, this letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student, John Lesinski, who completed the junior senior creative writing workshop three months ago. Mr. Lesinski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an 11-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster, a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus if memory serves, is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs. The monsters spittle burbling ever closer to the victim's groin. Though chaotic and improbable even within the fantasy horror genre, the story was solidly constructed. Dialogue consisted primarily of agonized groans and screaming. The chronology was relentlessly clear. Mr. Lesinski attended class faithfully, arriving on time and rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse to check his cell phone for messages, or relentlessly zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class. Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee, I have no idea, but Mr. Luzinski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits and reasonably bright. You might start him off in produce rather than seafood or meats. Whimsically Jason T. Fitger, professor of creative writing English, Payne University.”
Schumacher: At one point I wanted to see if I could make him talk about his sex life in a letter written for the benefit of a colleague and that was a fun challenge. I did get him to do that.
EdSurge: One of the things that struck me in reading “The Shakespeare Requirement” is how much when the perspective shifts—from a professor to a student as it does, or to the chair of the economics department—that their perspectives are so different and that they really don't understand the other at all. It feels like they are just so isolated in there with their blinders and they just can't see each other, even though they're in this very small world.
Schumacher: Yeah, there's a real myopia, I think. And I wanted in “The Shakespeare Requirement” for people to be diametrically opposed about certain things, but no one is necessarily wrong in their view. There's Professor Casavan, who's a Shakespeare scholar, who's adamant that Shakespeare must be taught and must be required for undergrad English majors. And then there's Jason Fitger, the chair of the department, who doesn't particularly care whether Shakespeare is taught or not. He just needs to get a decision made in his department so that he can have a budget. And it's interesting to look at universities that do or no longer have a requirement that undergrad English majors study Shakespeare. That's where the novel, the second one came from was was thinking about that issue, Shakespeare or no.
EdSurge: And yet it's funny how little that actually is being discussed by the characters because they're caught up in this Kafkaesque story like you said, about whether they have a budget or not.
Schumacher: Yeah, Kafkaesque is the right word for it.
EdSurge: One of the defining traits of Fitger, this fictional English professor, is his aversion to technology. He refuses to use things like P-Cal, the university's scheduling app, or to check his voicemail. And that constantly hinders his character's efforts, since he keeps it missing required meetings and doesn't get a chance to defend his department in the campus newspaper because he's always unavailable for comment, since he doesn't check his messages. So, I had to ask Schumacher about her views on tech in higher ed.
Schumacher: I'm kind of a Luddite, as Fitger is, and you look around here in my office, I have, for example, a paper planner. I do not keep my schedule on a computer or on a phone. I rarely use a cell phone. If you look over here, my telephone it's probably from the early '80s, I like that phone. They keep offering to update me with a new phone and I resist as much as possible. They always want to bring me updated computer system. No, no, no, no, no, I use a WordPerfect, I write by hand and then I type onto WordPerfect. So, I'm very old school.
EdSurge: Why is that?
Schumacher: All this technology is supposed to make our lives easier, it really doesn't. Let's just admit that. Like email, when it first came out, it was so convenient. Now I think most of us spend our lives trying to get through email, that's become a massive task every day is how do I get through email? I don't want to spend my life thinking that way. Every time I get time to write, I leave the phone and the computer behind, and I sit in a room by myself with no technological devices of any kind and it's terrific. It is just wonderful.
EdSurge: What have you found in being able to become this Jason Fitger voice and explore these other things? What do you think you've learned maybe about this world, you're using that tool to look into, that surprised you or that you've kind of come to learn through the process of writing these two books?
Schumacher: Well, I think at some point we've got to stop spending money at universities and colleges on glorification of student facilities, like climbing walls. And I saw in some article somewhere that at LSU they have a lazy river shaped in the letters of LSU. And I thought, "How many student dollars are going to stuff like that?" One of my kids went to a school in Iowa, Cornell College, which was a terrific little school. They didn't have loads of amenities, particularly in the athletics. And that place was a lovely educational institution and economically a bargain. It was a great place.
EdSurge: But all of this talk of satire reminded me of another writing professor who uses tech to invite his students and colleagues to get in on the joke. His name is Mark Marino, a professor of English at the University of Southern California. He and a colleague organized online writing challenges that they call netprovs or network improvisations. Just to get a sense of it, in one of them called Cooking With Anger, he said the professors gave each participating student a randomly generated basket of ingredients as he put it, a father, a bus, an apple, a piece of lettuce, and then a packet of emotions, like a half pinch of jealousy or a quarter dollop of anger. And then they would have to write a short story that used all those ingredients. It's all a little hard to picture and even Marino struggles with how to define netprov. Here's the definition he told me:
Mark Marino: It’s often a creative role playing with others in an emergent creation that helps you think back, in a satirical way or playful way, on the folly of our culture. So, we've had projects like “One Week No Tech,” which was an imaginary technology detox or fast, where people imagine giving up technology for a week and then tweeting about every moment of it as it happened. So, inspired by those people who take those photographs of themselves out in nature and they say, "Look, I finally have gotten offline." And then they post that to Instagram instantly.
EdSurge: So, a couple of years ago, while the Occupy Wall Street protests were going on, Marino helped organize a very public kind of netprov using a Twitter account called Occupy MLA. The MLA in this case refers to the Modern Language Association, the powerful scholarly association for college English professors.
Marino: And they began with a series of tweets. And sort of self-deprecating remarks about having cash bars or the anxiety of people who have to sit through all these panels, or people make a statement instead of asking a question, that sort of thing. So at first, I think we seemed very much like yet another one of those good-natured ribbing towards the MLA. One of our first slogans was something like, "Only the Oxford comma divides us," or something like that. So, you could sort of get the flavor of those.
But I must say that I had been really in my teaching career, I mean I'm not tenured now, I'm not even tenure track. So, I've been an adjunct or contingent faculty for my entire teaching career and I've definitely had time where I've gotten to see the way people can be exploited by the system. And certainly the adjunctification of universities, but also the move away from tenure and things like that. I've seen the way that that's affected real people's lives who have to teach it three and four colleges, or they teach seven classes a semester or whatever it may be. Because of the lack of tenure jobs and the increasing reliance of universities on faculty who are, again, either adjuncts, or part-timers or who are contingent in some way.
They're a clinical faculty who can never get tenure, but they're probably going to be around maybe, hopefully. Anyway, so Occupy MLA became this movement that took up that question of adjuncts’ rights, but it was a satire. And so, the characters were kind of faulty. Their leader was a medievalist named Charles, who was, just as precarious as he was, he was equally condescending and snide. And he wanted to teach medieval literature, but he always had to teach these composition classes. There was another woman, Hazel, who kept getting strung along by various departments. She ended up having, in the second season, if I could call it, the second year we did it or the second run of Occupy MLA, she gets led on by a character that she calls Prof Darcy, or that's the name we get him.
So, she has kind of a “Pride and Prejudice” realm where he's leading her on romantically as the school is leading her on with her possibility of one day hiring her. And again, that's something that I've lived through and seen a lot of people go through where again, you take these awful schedules and these horribly high enrollment giant class assignments so that you're working as many classes as you could teach, plus taking every volunteer opportunity you can to prove yourself to this college that really has no intention necessarily of hiring you. So anyways, we had that go on for however long and really are our target I think was, we called it a requiem for the dream of a tenure track position.
And certainly I was probably working through my own things at that point, but at the same time we got involved with the real adjuncts and the real part-time faculty movement, the labor union movement. And we supported them as much as a satirical account can and without ever revealing to those people who we were. I mean we didn't want to reveal to anyone who we were because we were worried about retribution against us, if anybody knew who was behind this.
EdSurge: Not everyone thought the use of a satirical Twitter account was the best way to help the cause of adjuncts. And apparently some readers did not understand that these characters who were tweeting were fictional.
Marino: I always tell my students that sarcasm is like a rusty saw and it's something that your kid brother can use when they don't like something you're doing right? They put on an exaggerated voice. But satire is something you to tend to do with a straight face and it's more like a really sharp scalpel or an X-ACTO Knife. And it's just as likely to cut you as to cut the thing you're trying to cut out of ... the cancer you're trying to go after.
So, yeah, there were people who were very critical of that and I mean we're talking about a literary project that was engaged with a literary community. So yeah, I mean am I surprised there are lots of interpretations or that people could interpret it different ways? I'm not surprised, that that comes with the territory.
EdSurge: A bigger question I had was whether works of satire, like the novels of Julie Schumacher, could wind up unintentionally providing ammo to those on the political right or others who are criticizing higher ed as being too liberal or too dysfunctional? I put that question to John Warner, author of “Why They Can't Write” and a former editor at the online humor site, McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
John Warner: Yeah, I hadn't really considered that. I think it's possible. I mean Julie Schumacher's books really are sort of loving. Her characters are flawed, they're human, but ultimately they reflect what I think goes on on most campuses, which is people trying to do the right thing often under difficult circumstances. There's always a villain or two, in these books they're usually an administrator who is operating and maybe from different motives and in “The Shakespeare Requirement,” as I recall, there's an administrator who is simply absent. Nobody can ever find this person. The provost never appears in the flesh, to me representing a kind of attitude like where we can always blame something on a provost like, "Oh, it's the provost’s problem." But in this case the provost is totally absent.
I think it's possible the novels could be used this way, but it would be only through a kind of deliberate misreading of them. And I think that's probably true of a lot of what you correctly note is this now sort of partisan divide over views of higher education. A lot of what is criticized about higher education in terms of politics or partisanship I think is a fundamental misreading of what's actually going on. The professoriate, it is quite obviously tilted towards liberals politically, but the number who are in engaged in active indoctrination of their students is vanishingly small. I've never met one of them.
The joke is like, I can't get them to read the syllabus. How could I possibly get them to read Marx or something like that? Right? So, it's just not the work that faculty do. It wouldn't be consistent with the values most of them hold to try to make a bunch of Mini-Mes. Are there some out there? Probably, but I've never met them. So, I feel like a lot of these novels come from a loving place, but that love is tinted with some measure of disappointment. We wish these spaces that we think are so important could be better and should be better. And writing a satire of them is a way to honor them and to prod them at the same time without doing too much lasting damage.
EdSurge: Yeah. The last question is, do you think this is a moment with all the kind of challenges facing higher ed, and everything from costs to the access issues, and not to mention this political kind of culture war, but do you think this is a time where satire might actually be more needed, so to speak, or helpful?
Warner: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think a campus novel that comes fundamentally at the problems of debt would be a fascinating book. Not just for students particularly, but I know many, many college faculty who are still paying off their loans for their education, people with PhDs and tenure. So, to apply that sort of lens to the world of campus and see all of the ways that that is hindering. Maybe I should write this book. I could envision a scene where a professor and a student are co-workers at one of the local restaurants because they both need to earn extra money to pay off their loans and what would that dynamic be? What if the student has actually been there much longer and is now the professor's supervisor because the professor needs extra money, or something like that.
So yeah, I think more. Anything that can sort of shine a light on what's happening in the culture, and I think that's what these novels fundamentally do, is absolutely welcome, at least by me.
EdSurge: I asked something similar to Julie Schumacher, but she didn't really buy it that somehow the academy deserved or needed more satire than any other part of society just now.
Schumacher: Every discipline has to have its wacky side. I think people who work at the post office, or hair salon, or at UPS, there's got to be really wacky stuff associated with what they do. And lots of us are characters, human beings are eccentric, but you see more academic satires than other types of satires because in academia you find people who write books. And particularly in English departments, you find people who write novels and I think there's probably as much wackiness going on at UPS and at the local hair salon, but those people aren't writing novels about them.
Works of Campus Satire Suggested by This Week’s Guests:
Julie Schumacher recommends:
- Don DeLillo, “White Noise”
- David Lodge, Campus Trilogy
- Lan Samantha Chang, “All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost”
- Richard Russo, “Straight Man”
John Warner recommends:
- David Lodge, Campus Trilogy (his favorites are the first two, “Changing Places” and “Small World”)
- Richard Russo, “Straight Man”
- Francine Prose, “Blue Angel”
Mark Marino recommends:
- "Back to School" with Rodney Dangerfield
- Vladimir Nabakov, "Pale Fire"
- Julie Schumacher, "Doodling for Academics"