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Julie Schumacher makes the U of M the laughing stock of literature (in a good way)

Julie Schumacher

Julie Schumacher Image courtesy Doubleday

Is English an endangered major?

It seems that way in Julie Schumacher’s new novel The Shakespeare Requirement. Professor Fitger, the cantankerous and self-absorbed protagonist of Schumacher’s 2014 novel, Dear Committee Members, returns for another academic year at Payne University. Fitger has been promoted to Chair of the English department, and with his new power position comes a lot of drama.

Circumstances force Fitger to get a unanimous vote from all English faculty on a new Statement of Vision. Everyone’s cooperation has a price: having a masturbating student removed, parent-friendly schedule changes, permission to brew kombucha in-office. For Professor Cassovan, it’s a requirement that all English majors take a Shakespeare course, sparking a battle that threatens to dismantle the English department and cede its turf to the well-endowed econ department.

Schumacher, who has been teaching at the U of M for just over 20 years, clearly pulled from her surroundings in crafting the new novel. “The red tape within university life is of a particular flavor,” she says. “That’s the flavor I know.”

Even the physical space of Payne’s English department comes alive. Rodents take up residence in the vending machines; the heat rarely works, forcing faculty to wear their winter gear indoors; and every surface that can break or leak does.

Given that the U of M’s English department has been “temporarily” housed for 30-plus-years in Lind Hall’s antiquated and crumbling facilities, it’s safe to say life influenced art. And the war for office and conference room space between econ and English in the book is eerily similar to a current U of M beef.

“There is a lovely library in the building,” Schumacher explains, “which belongs to the IT folks. We used to be able to use it but English is no longer allowed to use the library.”

What made Dear Committee Members so funny was that Schumacher wrote it in the form of recommendation letters by Fitger. It turned out to be a winning formula, making Schumacher the first woman to ever be awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor.

She planned to revisit Fitger’s first-person POV in The Shakespeare Requirement via a chair’s log, but when her editor saw the first 75 pages, he told her the book wouldn’t work that way.

“Whenever somebody criticizes my work, my first instinct is to think, ‘That idiot!’” Schumacher says. “Then I calm down for a while. It was going to become a dead-end pretty fast. There really wasn’t anywhere for it to go.”

So she rewrote The Shakespeare Requirement with an omniscient POV, inviting readers into the lives and minds of multiple characters on campus. “I was kind of nervous about making it omniscient,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve got all these characters to be responsible for.’ It was both scary and fun.”

Schumacher pulled it off, creating a “funhouse of dysfunctional characters,” all of them hilariously flawed. There’s Janet, Fitger’s ex-wife who’s dating the dean; Fran, Fitger’s animal-rehabilitating secretary; Professor Glenck, a T.S. Eliot scholar with a miniature donkey farm; and Angela, a Bible-thumping freshman whose entire future is altered in a momentary mistake.

Given the sardonic tone of the novel, does Schumacher have any friends left in the English department? In a word: yes. Her colleagues even cheered her along.

“My department is, right now, very collegial at the U,” she says. “It’s terrific. We have a great chair. People actually are friendly and we get along.”

The bad news: Nationally, Schumacher says enrollment numbers in English and other humanities courses have gone down.

“People are flocking to the STEM fields because of, in part, the price of higher education and student loans and debt,” she says. “I think to pretend that those fields are for everyone is a mistake. And also to decide, ‘Well, I’m going to be an engineer; I don’t need to take a history class,’ that’s just short-sighted and absurd. I think we’ve swung pretty far toward this STEM mania, but I think at some point we’re going to be swinging back.”

Another change on college campuses: the massive amount of technology. Fitger loses his cool multiple times when faced with technical requirements and inevitable glitches. Schumacher admits that in this respect, she is very “Fitger-like,” and resists technology in the classroom. If she had her way, students would arrive two hours early, check their tech at the door, and just read.

“I think the idea of immersing yourself in a work of literature and closing off the rest of the world and not looking at your phone or Facebook or taking a picture of your dog and sending it to somebody but just living in another reality for a couple of hours of time, I think it’s an important thing and we’re not doing it enough,” she says. “We’re losing that.”

Because getting into the U is more challenging nowadays, Schumacher says current students are very bright, though they don’t engage with the same intensity in reading and writing that previous generations did.

They “think in emoticons,” she says. Still, she’s cautiously optimistic that the English department won’t die off just yet. “I think there are always going to be people who can see language as an art form.”

IF YOU GO:

Julie Schumacher, The Shakespeare Requirement
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m. Thursday, September 27
Free