As working conditions in the academic humanities have deteriorated, the job of satirizing them has gotten more complicated. Elif Batuman’s memoir of Russian studies, The Possessed, came out eight years ago. It would be hard, in 2018, to pull off her trick of making a grad student’s life seem both totally surreal and sort of charming. Things have become too depressing to be funny. Today’s PhD students face a job market rinsed almost entirely clean of tenure-track jobs. The older faculty who remain in battered literature and history departments often seem barely aware of this fact or, if they’re informed, at a loss for ideas. Around them adjunct faculty scurry, vermin-like, filling their backpacks with conference cheese. Like Dixon’s hangover in that famous scene from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, the academy today isn’t just irritating: It’s bad.
The campus novel’s great moment coincided with the years that professors in the West enjoyed their highest social standing. Then, a professor was somebody with enough clout to warrant mockery. The 1950s saw Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952), Nabokov’s Pnin (1955), Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution (1954), and Lucky Jim (1954). John Williams’s Stoner has only been recognized for its genius in our own time, but he wrote it in the mid-1960s. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is 1975. David Lodge wrote a trio of academia novels in the late 1970s and early ‘80s—Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work—but Bradbury and Amis had by this point set the high water mark.
Many of those novels follow men made stupid by the academy, men who have become complacent and unsatisfactory to women through long exclusion from ordinary life. Instead of growing up, these men are instead engaged in endless pissing matches with their colleagues, while failing to produce scholarship of any significance. It’s all very satisfying to read when you have “left the academy” yourself. But the situation is so grim now that the red-bricks of Bradbury’s era seem like positive havens.
Fortunately, Julie Schumacher’s new novel The Shakespeare Requirement takes the collapse of American humanities as its premise. It’s a sequel to 2014’s Dear Committee Members, a book comprised entirely of letters, most of them letters of recommendation, written by professor Jason Fitger of Payne University’s English department. In that book, Fitger bemoaned the economics department’s renovation of his building’s higher floors, which left the English profs to molder, unevacuated, in the basement. He writes wistfully to Janet, his ex-wife, and rudely to other people. While extolling the virtues of one of his advisee’s prose—throughout the book the advisee slips down the social ladder until, safety net–less, he actually dies—Fitger airs old grievances and gets grotesquely nostalgic over some decades-old creative writing workshop he calls “the Seminar.”
As this genre traditionally demands, Schumacher makes the protagonist of both books deeply unlikeable and somehow, in his shabby way, the hero. But this new novel does some slightly different things than the last. First, it departs from the epistolary form to narrate an academic year in Fitger’s life. The fall semester begins as all others do. Undergrads play Frisbee and Fitger teaches a class on the “Literature of the Apocalypse.” In his first lecture he has the students go around reading aloud. One of the students quakes with fear. “The next student tried and failed to pronounce the word ‘tragic.’” Fitger has just gone over his classroom policies, which stipulate no eating, drinking, or devices beyond paper and mechanical pencil. And yet: “At the back of the room … a student was dribbling hot sauce onto a taco while checking his phone.”
Fitger has (unwillingly) been made the chair of the department. He is now the target of the opprobrium that he himself once directed at the university’s authority figures. Meanwhile, a student has misunderstood the term “academic adviser,” and is looking to him for actual advice. His ex-wife is sleeping with the dean. The economics department has obtained control of the English department’s conference room. And then word reaches the elderly Professor Cassovan that the Shakespeare requirement of the English degree at Payne is to be dropped.
I’ve TA’d a few Shakespeare classes in my time, and learned that the Shakespeare professor in most English departments is a learned, venerable, solid person whose style of scholarship is usually unfashionable but deeply committed. In this novel the type bears out. Cassovan provides the moral center of this book, steadfastly advocating for his subject amid the collapse of his department around his ears. (There is mold in the walls, a wasp’s nest in the ceiling, and zero funding.) He refuses to give up.
The Shakespeare Requirement takes on a department in a terrible state. English at Payne is not so much an intellectual nest of idiot vipers, as in The History Man, but rather a collection of people with very little energy left to give, trying in their semi-competent way to keep their subject alive in a hostile culture. Fitger is perhaps the least competent among them—he can barely use email, for example—but the travails of the novel end up testing his worth as a human being, not as an administrator.
It’s an update to the campus novel genre, therefore, reflecting the peril the humanities find themselves in. The Shakespeare Requirement is also extremely funny. Fitger at one stage seeks an interview with the provost, but finds him eternally absent. Eventually the secretary explains, “The provost collects tarantulas.” He is out of the country looking for them. “He brings the tarantulas back to the U.S. in Styrofoam coolers.”
There are times when Schumacher overemphasizes Fitger’s sentimental side. I rather preferred him when he was indisputably an ass. Some seriousness is not out of place in a satirical novel, but Schumacher relies both in this book and its precursor on killing off a character in order to get her protagonist to feel anything, which is tricky to pull off more than once.
Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, although nonfiction, fell happily into the Amis/Bradbury tradition, because the weirdest and most wonderful elements of her quest for knowledge come from the mouths of other academics. Some writing she submits for an exhibition, for example, is sent back to her with a note: “Please call ASAP regarding portrayal of Cossacks as primitive monsters.” The most joyful parts of academic satire come when professors confuse, conflate, and then cannot tell the difference between their work and the world. But Schumacher’s Fitger doesn’t really do any research or serious teaching. His character needs a soupçon more of actual work in his life, and fewer feelings.
But long may Julie Schumacher continue to bring Payne University to life. There is not enough quality satire in this world, and nothing has done more to deserve it than the American university system.