In this sequel to Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher continues her satirical commentary on the humanities in academia.
The protagonist of The Shakespeare Requirement, Jason Fitger, is the newly appointed chair of Payne University’s English department, which faces budget cuts.
As we see in an excerpt from the novel below, Shakespeare becomes a sticking point during an important department meeting discussion: Will the Bard continue to be a required class for English majors at Payne University?
He explained that almost every humanities department had been told to cut back, and that the more modest number of requirements was going to work in their favor. Not just at Payne but across the United States, students were defecting in droves from the traditional major in English to newer fields such as “business writing,” “technical communications,” and graphic design. The lower number of credits was an attempt to reverse those defections. It would make the department more attractive to students.
Cassovan’s face was impassive. “And this is our object?” he asked. “To make the study of literature ‘attractive’?”
“I don’t understand your question,” West said. He pointed out that English was competing for students, and for student tuition dollars, with other departments.
Jennifer Brown-Wilson swung her desk around in a half-circle to look at Cassovan. “What exactly are you objecting to?” she asked. “The smaller number of credits? Or something else more specifically?”
Cassovan thanked her for the opportunity to clarify. He was objecting, he said, to the absence in the Statement of Vision of any reference to Shakespeare, and to the attendant lack of clarity regarding the department’s requiring of students to take at least one semester-long class in that field.
West caught his foot in the metal book rack under his desk. Shakespeare would obviously continue to be taught, he said. It was widely included in the curriculum: Helena Stang had just taught a class on the graphic novel that included a manga version of Macbeth.
Cassovan looked pained rather than pleased at this disclosure. A casual or passing reference or, even worse, a modern adaptation of the works of the dramatist, he said, could never—
Zander Hesseldine, combing the underside of his beard with his fingers, interrupted. Why should Cassovan’s field be referenced in the SOV when others weren’t? The document made no mention of Postcolonial Literature. Besides, suggesting that Shakespeare studies were in jeopardy was like treating the cockroach as an endangered species.
Stang, a heavy row of metal bracelets ringing her arm, swiftly agreed: her own field—feminist studies—was not represented in the SOV either; and requiring a semester-long class in the work of a single white male author was, in the twenty-first century, nothing less than absurd.
West explained that the SOV had deliberately been rewritten without reference to specific fields, because of the lower number of required credits. That said, students would certainly be able to study Shakespeare or medieval literature or poetry or—
“We have one Shakespearean in the department,” Hesseldine murmured, in an audible aside to Stang. “And I assume that, sooner or later, he intends to retire.”
Cassovan turned to his barbigerous colleague. An armchair Marxist who displayed a Cuban flag on the door of his office, Hesseldine was, in Cassovan’s view, the worst sort of academician, encouraging in his students a smug, postmortem approach to literature and a view of the classics that stank of disdain. Cassovan had been a member of the department for forty-two years and he suspected that his retirement would elicit a yawn of indifference from most of his colleagues. He felt more of a kinship with his students—he had taught, by his estimation, some eight thousand undergraduates—who, though less widely read, were open-minded and intellectually alive. He was at present, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, leading a group of freshmen through Othello, and he had been struck during the most recent session to find a young woman—the one who had helped him gather his books after Fitger assaulted him with a window screen—openly weeping over Desdemona’s demise.
“A department of English,” he said, “cannot exist without requiring, for its majors, at least one semester-long course in the study of Shakespeare. To require any less would be irresponsible; it is a dumbing down.”
West said it was important that the Statement of Vision encompass the broad range of interests in the department; and because students majoring in English would now be required to complete only twenty-eight credits, greater flexibility in the curriculum—
“Shakespeare,” Cassovan said, “is not an interest.”
Stang said that at least one class in feminist literature, and one in theory—
Atherman said that if the Brontës were not included—
Brown-Wilson suggested that the first paragraph of the Statement of Vision be entirely scrapped; and in the second paragraph, the word requirement—
Franklin Kentrell posed the idea of eliminating the dashes in paragraph three. He didn’t care for the dash as a unit of punctuation. It was too breezy and too offhand. It was—
“We could recommend a semester of Shakespeare, instead of requiring it,” Lovejoy said.
“A recommendation is insufficient,” Cassovan said. “The English major—”
Kentrell explained that he was not alone in his aversion to the dash. He never permitted students to use it. He—
“The English major,” Cassovan said, “is not a—”
Beauchamp said they obviously needed to rewrite the SOV, but fall, for her, was not a very propitious time. West moaned; they had just rewritten it, he said. Hesseldine also insisted on a thorough revision, but refused to participate himself; furthermore, he vehemently opposed the idea of the task being handled by a cabal of traditionalists. “And by ‘traditionalists,’ ” he said, still grooming the underside of his beard, “I’m referring to people who haven’t read any of the theoretical or Marxist literature in the past fifty years.”
“Please don’t say ‘Marxist,’ ” Lovejoy said. The word was an open invitation to Albert Tyne’s favorite diatribe regarding the vacuity of cultural studies, identity politics, political correctness, and “psychoanalytic hocus-pocus masquerading as legitimate inquiry”; Stang, as always, rose to the bait, following up with a mini-lecture on the subject of phallocentric hegemony and the necessary demise of the Anthropocene.
Martin Glenk, who had spent the past twenty minutes doing a crossword, said that if the meeting was going to be hijacked and sent downstream on a homemade raft of hackneyed rhetoric, they would have to excuse him, as he had more pressing things to do.
Fitger attempted to call them to order. “Do we have a motion?”
Atherman, her glass eye rolling toward the ceiling, moved that they vote.
Tyne asked if he would be speaking out of turn if he were to question the reputability of a department chaired not by a scholar but a “creative writer,” a person whose publications consisted of B‑grade coitive fantasies of various easily identifiable women on campus, including the author’s ex-wife.
“The sensitivity training is going well, I see, Albert,” Fitger said.
A student knocked and opened the door. He was sorry to interrupt, but he was part of a Bible as Literature study group whose members were meeting in room 102A. Would the professors be able, for the next fifteen minutes, to quiet down?
Brown-Wilson seconded the motion.
“Shakespeare,” Cassovan said, “must always be the core of a department of English. We cannot allow—”
Glenk distributed ballots and the vote was taken: three were for the SOV as it stood and four were against; there were five abstentions.
Excerpted from The Shakespeare Requirement. Copyright © 2018 by Julie Schumacher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Want to hear more? Listen to our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode, “Julie Schumacher on The Shakespeare Requirement.”