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By Lindsay Lennon

As an author and professor best known for satirizing higher education, Julie Schumacher, MFA ’86, is often asked if she’s afraid to go to work. In fact, when the first book in her current trilogy was published, Schumacher’s husband—who, like her, teaches at the University of Minnesota—joked that he was glad they had different last names.

Schumacher has been lovingly-but-brutally roasting the absurdities of academia since 2014, when she published her bestselling epistolary novel Dear Committee Members.

Hailed by Kirkus as an “acid satire of the academic doldrums,” the book unfolds through a series of passive-aggressive recommendation letters penned by her blustery protagonist, English professor Jason Fitger.

Whether he’s nominating a colleague for a prestigious chairmanship or bolstering a student’s law school application, the disenchanted Fitger can’t resist adding his sardonic spin to every correspondence.

Author Julie Schumacher who has brown hair, blue-framed eyeglasses and is wearing a black sweater
For many colleagues, Schumacher’s satirical portrait of academia rings hysterically—and perhaps painfully—true.

“Ms. Vivian Zelles has asked me—three days before your application deadline—to recommend her to your January residency program at Bentham, and herewith I oblige,” he huffs in one letter.

And in another: “I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes. This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

The book earned Schumacher the Thurber Prize for American Humor—making her the first woman to win it, and putting her in the rarefied pantheon of such past recipients as former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and superstar memoirist David Sedaris.

In 2018, Schumacher again placed Fitger center stage (though without the epistolary format) in the trilogy’s second entry, The Shakespeare Requirement.

Praised as “a very funny lesson on the frustrations and machinations of academic life” by the Washington Post, it follows her harried antihero’s adventures as the reluctant chair of his dysfunctional department.

When he’s pitted against a formidable economics chair hell-bent on gutting the humanities, Fitger tries to rally his English colleagues around a departmental vision statement—only to become the target of a highly publicized “Save Our Shakespeare” campaign.

Dear Committee Members earned Schumacher the Thurber Prize for American Humor—making her the first woman to win it.

Now, Schumacher has closed out the series with The English Experience, in which Fitger begrudgingly agrees to chaperone an eccentric cadre of undergrads on a study-abroad trip to London.

Published in August 2023, the tale offers glimpses of Fitger’s more sympathetic side: he can’t help starting to care for his pupils, who include a claustrophobic sleepwalker with an arrest record, a young woman who has never strayed far from her beloved cat, and a student who repeatedly decamps for solo trips to the continent.

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“It feels a bit like a divorce or a death to be done with this guy, because I’ve been with him for a dozen years,” observes Schumacher, chatting from her home in St. Paul, MN. “But I don’t want my character to wear out his welcome.”

Though Schumacher is careful to point out that she never portrays real people or scenarios, her fictional and highly fraught Midwestern school—aptly dubbed Payne University—has served as a self-deprecating mirror for countless fans.

Nearly all her book-related correspondence, she says, is from fellow academics who see themselves in various scenes—even ones she’d assumed were too far-fetched for real life.

The cover of the book the English Experience featuring an umbrella with the Union Jack flag on it

“People will say, ‘I know a person who did that,’ or ‘That happened in my university,’” says Schumacher, who teaches English and creative writing at Minnesota. “It’s a pressure-cooker environment—and pressure causes people to behave in unusual ways.”

A Delaware native whose dad (Frederick Schumacher ’42) was also an alum, Schumacher studied Spanish and creative writing at Oberlin before eventually landing in NYC as an editorial assistant for a medical publishing company.

After a piece she wrote for a small literary journal was included in the annual Best American Short Stories anthology, she matriculated into Cornell’s highly selective MFA program in creative writing.

“It was a miraculous thing,” Schumacher recalls, “to go from working nine-to-five in a job I didn’t really care for, wondering what the heck to do with myself, to being surrounded by people who wanted to talk about books and what they were writing.”

It was a miraculous thing to go from working nine-to-five in a job I didn’t really care for to being surrounded by people who wanted to talk about books and what they were writing.

As both a writer and reader, Schumacher has always been drawn to works that delve into the “wackiness factor” of personal and professional life. Discovering shared idiosyncrasies and experiences can be profoundly cathartic, she says, offering relief that one isn’t alone.

And despite her protagonist’s unsavory qualities—“he’s obstreperous, obnoxious, insecure,” she admits—Schumacher and Fitger share concerns about the challenges facing many budget-strapped colleges and universities across the country, including shrinking humanities programs and the reduction of tenure-track positions.

Indeed, as the New Yorker observed in its review of The Shakespeare Requirement: “Schumacher blends satire with righteousness; she seeks to circle collegiate wagons against external threats to the liberal arts.”

A group of Cornell students in 1986
Schumacher (middle row, center) with her MFA cohort in the mid-1980s.

And, like Fitger, Schumacher has been known to mine comic material from the least likely of circumstances—including on her way home from NYC after the Thurber Prize ceremony.

At LaGuardia, the box containing her new trophy set off the metal detectors, prompting some pointed questions from the TSA.

“I said, ‘It’s a humor award,’” she recalls. To which the agent replied: “So, you’re a comedian? Tell me something funny.”

All images provided.

Published August 14, 2023


  1. Jason R Gettinger, Class of 1964

    I will try one of these novels. Schumacher seems a worthy successor to the late Alison Lurie of Cornell — wish she were with us.

  2. Victor Reus, Class of 1969

    As an academic myself, I very much enjoyed reading Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement, and will look forward to this one.Just finished Straight Man by Richard Russo which covers the same ground and agree that Alison Lurie was an essential member of the club as well. There should be a course in this genre!

  3. Eric Key, Class of 1977

    Dear Committee Members is hilarious, at least if you are a professor asked to write these things!
    Eric Key
    BA ’77, MA ’80, PhD 1983

  4. Dennis Vail, Class of 1972

    As a former academic, I greatly appreciate academic satire and have written some myself, including a jeu d’esprit that I sent to my committee chairman immediately after my M.A orals, entitled MANUSCRIPTUM VALORIS MAXIMI : OPUSCULUM MAIUS CONTRA SCIENTES.

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