Julie Schumacher on The Shakespeare Requirement

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 109

Should college students be required to study Shakespeare? As American universities examine the role of the liberal arts and humanities in our society, what will—and what should—happen to the Bard’s place in English curricula? The Shakespeare Requirement, novelist (and creative writing professor) Julie Schumacher’s new academic satire, asks just that. There's also a protest movement, a herd of miniature donkeys, and menacing committee called QUAP. 

Jason Fitger, hero of Julie Schumacher’s 2014 novel Dear Committee Members, returns in her new book. The tactless and ineffective Fitger is now chair of the fictional Payne University’s English department, and he’s been tasked with marshaling the department’s faculty to approve a new Statement of Vision. One obstacle is Dennis Cassovan, the department’s elderly Shakespeare scholar, who insists that the Statement include a required semester of Shakespeare. Hanging in the balance? The English department’s annual budget and its home in Willard Hall’s crumbling basement.

Julie Schumacher is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. Her novel Dear Committee Members, won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. The New Yorker called it “a comic aria of crankiness, disillusionment, and futility.” Her new novel, The Shakespeare Requirement, was published by Doubleday in 2018. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

From the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published November 13, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, ““Mark the Manner of His Teaching,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Randy Johnson and Steve Griffith at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: I’m just going to come out and make a bold statement. Shakespeare is important. Right? Right? Right.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. OK, I know you agree with me that Shakespeare is important—vital, even. But in a lot of places, what we take for granted is becoming—shall we say—less clear. There is once again fear in some quarters about what’s being called “The Death of Shakespeare” on American college campuses. But this isn’t like the uproar during the Reagan administration. Back then, the charge was that Shakespeare was being swept away out of antipathy toward “Dead White Male” writers. These days, it’s said the blame can be laid at the feet of university economics.

I won’t go into the argument too deeply here, because it’s the topic of a new, comic novel by our guest, Julie Schumacher. She’s the author of 2014’s Dear Committee Members, winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. The New Yorker magazine called it “a comic aria of crankiness, disillusionment, and futility,” all focused on an English professor at fictional Payne University named Jason Fitger. Julie Schumacher’s new book is called The Shakespeare Requirement. In it, Fitger is the newly appointed chair of the Department of English, and the crankiness, disillusionment, and futility are now—at least partially—focused on what his university is trying to do to Shakespeare.

We call this episode “Mark the Manner of His Teaching.” Julie Schumacher is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BOGAEV: Julie, I am so happy to have you here because that means I can ask you to read for us from your book, and before you do, if you could first tell us about this character whose mind we’re going to be dipping into, this Shakespeare scholar Dennis Cassovan.

SCHUMACHER: Yes. Professor Cassovan is a professor of the English department in Payne who has been in English the longest of any other faculty member, and he’s a traditionalist. He’s a bit fusty, but he has a lot of dignity, and he very much wants to defend the idea of undergraduates in English being required to take at least one semester of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Great, I can see him in his tweeds now. I think we’re ready for the reading.

SCHUMACHER [reading from The Shakespeare Requirement ]: “Lincoln Young had been right about the department’s new Statement of Vision. The document, purported to be an outline of overview of the department’s purpose, was distressing proof that Cassovan’s laissez-faire attitude toward his academic unit had come at a cost. After Lincoln handed over his time card and slumped out of the office, Cassovan had spent the hours he normally would have dedicated to refining his syllabus to a squinting consultation with his computer screen. The proposed new SOV made no mention of Shakespeare, but referred in broadly meaningless terms to inquiry, professionalization, engagement, and a multiplicity of perspectives in a globalized world. It might as well have been the Statement of Vision for the Department of Health Sciences or Phys Ed. Should the statement be subject to a vote and approved, the result would be a scattershot curriculum almost entirely devoid of tradition or history, and the undergraduate student majoring in English would not longer be required to take a course—not even one—in the works of Shakespeare.

“Cassovan closed his eyes for a moment, feeling ill. The very marrow of the discipline would be expunged. He had to hold himself partly responsible. During the year he had been on sabbatical, he had scarcely glanced at the daily deluge of e-correspondence or the minutes of meetings. But now, email by email, he followed a month’s long electronic rabbit trail which revealed that, in addition to electing Jason Fitger chair of the department, a hodgepodge of exhausted colleagues had collectively assembled this impossible document, as if dragging a one-legged blind man through multiple layers of the committee’s system. Perhaps the intent had been to obey some bizarre directive from above, but the outcome was, for the students, an irresponsible freedom. No need for the English major to familiarize him- or herself with Chaucer or Milton, let alone Spencer or Donne, all of whose works had been discarded in an earlier purge. Now, Shakespeare himself was to be lobbed, like a tidbit of refuse, into the bin.

“And what might Payne’s young literary scholars study instead? Bracing himself, Cassovan returned to the course catalog. Upcoming classes included Aliens and Outlaws, Marxism 2.5, The American Soap and the Telenovela, and a Literature of Deviation. How was a student to make any sense of it? Shakespeare was the cornerstone, the fountainhead. To allow an undergraduate English major to earn a diploma without studying Hamlet and Lear, and either Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra, was, on the part of the faculty, an abdication. Read whatever you like! We aren’t here to offer intellectual guidance! Our field is a come-what-may experience. Anything goes!”

BOGAEV: Julie Shumacher, thank you so much for that.

SCHUMACHER: Thank you.

BOGAEV: I have to say, I’d love to take an English class on Aliens and Outlaws, or the Literature of Deviation. So clearly, we’re talking here, and you’re spoofing this ongoing debate about the core curriculum. But there’s another layer, and it’s about this SOV, the Statement of Vision, and really the corporatization of academia.

SCHUMACHER: I think the corporatization and the bureaucratization, the way in which it seems difficult to get things accomplished because of the need for lots of layers of difficult administrative overlap.

BOGAEV: And in your novel, the English department has to get this Statement of Vision together, because without it, I mean, it has real consequences. The department doesn’t have a budget, so in the case of the English department, they can’t even fix their window unit air conditioner.

SCHUMACHER: They can’t get stationary, they’re filching stationary from other departments, filching staplers, getting supplies from other people’s closets, because yeah, they don’t have budget. And that’s tied to the Statement of Vision.

BOGAEV: Right, and comedy ensues.

SCHUMACHER: And their budget is in part being withheld because of the evil, the villainous economist upstairs, Roland Gladwell, who is, I suppose, a representative of all the things that might want to crush the arts and humanities in higher ed.

BOGAEV: Yeah, he’s kind of the rainmaker, right? And there seems to be always one. Maybe they don’t always come from the economics department, but there’s always one in a university or a college who can really play this corporatization game to their benefit. Kind of the Silicon Valley invasion of education.

SCHUMACHER: Yeah, I think, you know I wanted to play with the idea of also the way in which people are just wildly enthusiastic about all things science, technology, engineering, and math, versus taking classes in, you know, literature, art, philosophy, classics, religion, history. Some people ought to be pushed toward poetry, for example. Why not?

BOGAEV: Why not? You have a great description of those people, the people who can really roll with this corporatization of the academy, and you describe them as the “brawny networking businessmen and -women who knew nothing of students and who would turn the teaching of undergraduates into ill-paid incidental labor.”

SCHUMACHER: [LAUGH] There, I was going after the increasing trend in hiring adjunct faculty, rather than tenure track. And I don’t mean to just in any way lambast universities. I think they are in a really difficult position these days. The cost of tuition is very high, students are increasingly looking skeptically at higher ed or deciding to go to a two-year college and then transfer, because the money is daunting. It’s a huge problem and universities are responding, sometimes, by, you know, hiring lower-paid temporary faculty, and also by seeking money from corporate donors.

BOGAEV: Right, and as a foil to this, you have both the department head, who you’ve written about in your previous novel, Jason Fitger, who’s… I mean, his heart is in the right place, but he’s a hard person, I don’t know, he’s a hard person to like. But you must have a lot of affection for him if you’ve stuck by him.

SCHUMACHER: I do, I love Fitger. I did, I stuck by him in part because he is so flawed. He so cares about the things that I care about, the arts and humanities in higher ed and his students, but he goes about it in probably the least effective of ways [LAUGHS]. He completely lacks tact, he lacks all diplomatic skill.

BOGAEV: He’s a rotten administrator.

SCHUMACHER: Yeah, he’s a rotten administrator. He should not be running a department.

BOGAEV: He always has food on his face or his clothes or his teeth. I mean, he’s kind of a mess.

SCHUMACHER: [LAUGHS] He does. Well, you know, people in the academy are not known generally for being natty dressers.

BOGAEV: And then there’s Cassovan, this elderly Shakespeare, you know, die-hard holdout, and he’s insisting on having a Shakespeare requirement in the Statement of Vision, even though plenty of other writers aren’t mentioned specifically in it. Maybe none. Had you planned all along to write a book about a Shakespeare requirement?

SCHUMACHER: No, I hadn’t thought about that. With the first book, Dear Committee Members, the only thing I was thinking when I began the novel was would it be possible to write a whole book in the forms of letters of recommendation? I just thought it would be an amusing puzzle to see if I could pull it off, and Fitger arose from my desire to figure that puzzle out. So, when I began the second book, I knew I would make Fitger the chair in the second book, but I was looking for some sort of structure to hang things on, hang the plot on.

I was in a faculty meeting one day when the idea of Shakespeare as a requirement came up. A colleague sitting next to me said, “At my previous institution, we had a year-long fight about the Shakespeare requirement and I hope to god we aren’t going to get into that here.” And it just felt like a little light bulb went on in my head, and I thought, this Shakespeare requirement, that could be something that Fitger’s department of Payne University would fight about for an entire year. It would give me a year’s plot and structure for the novel.

BOGAEV: And it gives us an hour’s worth of things to talk about, because first of all, does this mean your college, where you work, doesn’t have a Shakespeare requirement?

SCHUMACHER: Actually, at the University of Minnesota, we do require that undergrad English majors take a semester of Shakespeare. But most colleges, including most in the Ivies and that, you know, top-tier liberal arts colleges no longer require—have that requirement.

BOGAEV: Even for the major?

SCHUMACHER: Even for the major.

BOGAEV: Okay, let’s talk about that. Is that a dividing line still?

SCHUMACHER: Well, you know, it’s probably of tail end of the culture wars from the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. I am not a Shakespeare scholar, and don’t feel like I really have a dog in this fight, but… One of the things I did, I prevailed upon a colleague, who’s a Shakespearean, to visit her class and quiz her undergrads about their feelings on Shakespeare. And I asked them at one point, should Shakespeare be required for undergrad English majors? And they divided very tidily into two camps, about 50 - 50. The first half said they thought it was ridiculous for an English major to be required to take a semester’s worth of instruction in the work of one author, one white, male author, dead 500-and-some years. Why not include Shakespeare in, you know, an early theater course, or Shakespeare and Milton, or Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, or some combination of the above? That there were so many works to study as an English major that to take an entire semester in one author didn’t necessarily seem like the best of plans.

The other 50 percent said, you know, they thought that every discipline should have a structure to it, some sort of sense of a foundation. What one studies first and then second. In the sciences, there’s a certain ladder, a curricular ladder, that one climbs, and that if there were no such ladder in English, what you would be looking as a curriculum would simply be a bunch of electives. And even if Shakespeare wasn’t necessarily an ideal or the perfect foundation, he was a logical foundation. Gotta start somewhere. This was a good starting point, it would give a structure to the discipline.

BOGAEV: That’s a pretty impressive class. I mean, I think you could say they’re representative. I guess my question is what’s new or different about this conversation?

SCHUMACHER: Well, I think, you know, the humanities take a bashing from the general public sometimes, that you’ll hear people say well, I don’t want my son or daughter who’s going off to college to be spending his or her time studying stuff that, you know, isn’t going to get him a job. So, heck with Shakespeare, let’s get with something more current or more modern. A communications class, a technical writing class, business writing, leadership… something that will get my child a job.

And on the other hand, then English can be bashed for trying to be too relevant, too responsive to the desire for what is shiny and new. So hence the class on, you know, the Telenovela [LAUGH] in the passage that I read, or the Literature of Deviation. I think that…

BOGAEV: And there’s also the diversity debate and the white, male author.

SCHUMACHER: Sure, there’s the diversity debate, yeah. So, should we be doing Shakespeare and Robert Frost and Willa Cather and all these white authors when there are many, many other voices that should be heard?

BOGAEV: I have to say here, I have two kids, and neither of them went to liberal arts colleges. Both of them were looking very much towards… One’s an engineer, and one’s in industrial design, and it’s a conversation we’ve had over and over again in our family. I mean, it really goes to the heart of, I think, economic anxiety in our culture, too.

SCHUMACHER: Yeah. Definitely, definitely. And again, you know, we want and need engineers, we want and need doctors and dentists. But to me, it seems a bit shortsighted or narrow to look at the job market and think okay, I’m going to get a business degree or an accounting degree because that will get me a job. We don’t know what the job market is going to look like ten years from now. I suppose we will always need engineers, sure, why not? But we don’t know what’s going to happen with computers in the next ten years, what’s going to happen with, you know, Amazon taking over the world [LAUGHS]. I think that to go to college thinking only of the marketplace, rather than about being an educated, informed person in the world, a person who can think creatively, have an imagination. People should know something about art and about history politics and everything else. We don’t want to be narrow, we don’t want to think narrowly. We want to be imaginative thinkers, every single one of us.

BOGAEV: Well I don’t wanna stray too far away for too long from Shakespeare. So, in the context of all that is going on with them in the academy, does Shakespeare still embody, kind, of the man, the pinnacle of the patriarchy of civilization, or the established order? Is that what you’re playing with Cassovan and his fight for the requirement, you know, a voice for those old ways of thinking?

SCHUMACHER: I think so. I mean, Cassovan is a traditionalist, and he is fusty. Fitger called him a moss-back. But he also is really standing up for something he believes in, he’s not just fighting for his job. He’s able to retire. He’s fairly well-on in years, he could retire, but he fears that a way of life and a way of thinking and scholarship is going to disappear if he doesn’t stay on watch. He and Fitger I think would not in general disagree terribly about Shakespeare, except that Fitger is worried about his budget. And there’s a scene in which Fitger says to Cassovan: You don’t understand, I am fighting for the department’s survival here, you know. I need money, I need you to agree about this Statement of Vision on the Shakespeare requirement. And Cassovan responds to him by saying, I’m fighting for the department’s soul. And I think both of them are being sincere and they’re trying to do what they can in very difficult circumstances. But, yeah, to Cassovan, Shakespeare embodies, you know, all that is good in history and scholarship and literature and the study of English.

BOGAEV: And the life of the mind and the soul, as you say.

SCHUMACHER: And the life of the mind.

BOGAEV: And we’re talking about very serious things, but you managed to work in some hilarity with a plot twist that involves a campaign by the Payne college newspaper, student newspaper, and something brewed up by Cassovan’s own research assistant, and they come up with the Save Our Shakespeare campaign, SOS. And what’s great about it is that every political campaign really does need a hero or a scapegoat, and Shakespeare becomes the face of this campaign. So where does Shakespeare, I mean in the broader sense, fit into all of this debate about core curriculum now? Is Shakespeare front and center in these conversations?

SCHUMACHER: I don’t know whether he, Shakespeare, is front and center in the conversations at every school, but again, I do know that it has been dropped at a good number of schools. We hold on to it at Minnesota, and I did have great fun the Save Our Shakespeare campaign, because at first, Cassovan is delighted that students will, he thinks, rally around, you know, the idea of Shakespeare being a requirement, but soon he discovers that rather than rallying around Shakespeare per se, they’re just sort of printing buttons and [LAUGHS] protesting things in general. It’s not about…

BOGAEV: Right, [LAUGHS] right, they love the mechanics of the protest.

SCHUMACHER: Yes, and his grad student is trying to make money by selling Shakespeare buttons, which start to come out in many strange forms that are not making Cassovan very happy.

BOGAEV: Well getting back to your own personal experience, you teach creative writing MFA program. What do your students expect will happen after they get their degree? What do they think an English major or an MFA brings them in the marketplace?

SCHUMACHER: Well, there are all kinds of [LAUGHS]…  You know, you see these flyers and posters “What can one do with an English major?” and, you know, we talk a lot in our department about positions the students have gone on to handle. Non-profit work, radio, [LAUGHS] podcasts, fundraising development, law. There are a zillion firms that would like to hire, I think, people who can think on their feet and write clearly. Writing clearly, I can tell you from teaching lots of writing, from freshmen to seniors to graduate students, writing clearly is something that is becoming a rare skill these days. They’re used to texting one another, to peppering their emails with emoticons. But actually writing persuasive or glorious prose, that’s a rare skill.

BOGAEV: And is that what they’re coming into the program to learn? I mean, what are their expectations?

SCHUMACHER: I think, you know, the reason Shakespeare and all other literature is going to keep surviving and keep being of interest to people is that people still love and need narrative. They need stories. We have, in one form or another, whether it’s on Netflix or in King Lear, we crave an artistic depiction of the human experience. That desire is never going to go anywhere. And I think the students that come into both our creative writing and our English classes, that’s what they’re there for. They remember how marvelous it was to lie in a hammock and immerse themselves in a work of literature. There is nothing like that feeling. People think of literature as an escape from the real world, but, you know, you read Romeo and Juliet or Lear or Othello, and there can be the pleasure in escape while you’re immersed in the reading experience, but there’s also the feeling that you’ve gained some insight into the human condition that can’t be found by, you know, taking a statistics class.

BOGAEV: I’m curious, after writing this character Cassovan and thinking…  I mean, your book is a lot of other things besides the Shakespeare requirement, but certainly some thought has gone, on your part, into that. Have you had any new ideas or come out the other end thinking differently about whether Shakespeare should be a requirement?

SCHUMACHER: [LAUGHS] Again, I usually duck that question by saying I don’t have a dog in that fight, and I did have to admit somewhat sheepishly that after having written The Shakespeare Requirement that I never took a Shakespeare class in college. I was a Spanish and Latin American studies major, so I was busy reading the Quixote and García Márquez, and never got around to taking a Shakespeare class. I have to confess that on your show, unfortunately.

BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] Well here’s the place to confess it. Don’t feel bad, I don’t think you’re alone. Have you read Shakespeare, or do you just go see it?

SCHUMACHER: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Oh yeah, definitely, definitely. You know, the tragedies are the ones I glom onto, and I think those maybe have infiltrated both of these academic satires more than anything else, because people think about these two novels, Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement, as satires and comedies, but I think both of them at the core are pretty sad. People who are sliding downhill and trying desperately to hold on.

BOGAEV: That is the way with satire, right? You’re talking about reality.

SCHUMACHER: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, you mentioned earlier universities that are doing away not just with Shakespeare requirements, but with, you know, arts and humanities classes. And there’s a good example nearby in the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point that has, because of financial difficulties, proposed cutting majors in English, history, philosophy, romance languages, and other disciplines as well. And that to me is just mind-boggling. If you’re going to call yourself a university rather than a technical college, you can’t cut a history major. [LAUGH] How is that possible? History, English, philosophy, religion, it just… it boggles the mind.

BOGAEV: What is it like to work on a college campus as a novelist who skewers academia? I mean, are your colleagues always worried you’re taking notes at cocktail parties, or do they think your books are all about them, or do they read themselves into characters that aren’t even about them?

SCHUMACHER: I was pretty careful to avoid depicting anybody that I know. I really didn’t wanna go there. I have a great job, but people have said to me when we had our first faculty meeting, my Shakespeare colleague said to me, “I hope this meeting isn’t going to be like the one in your book.” [LAUGHS] So, the interesting thing is the amount of feedback I’ve gotten from people I don’t know at all who have found me on email to tell me about their experience in academia, across the academic disciplines. Just a couple days ago, I got an email from a faculty person who said, “My sincere gratitude for your two books, which have saved me from, or at least temporarily staved off, abject insanity.” [LAUGHTER] I think there’s some catharsis that the books offer to people who are in the teaching professions, not just in higher ed, but…  I got, after Dear Committee Members, a huge number of letters from people teaching, English teachers in high school, who probably write more letters of reference than anyone else on the planet.

BOGAEV: Well, it was a lot of fun reading the book. Thank you for that, and thank you for the conversation.

SCHUMACHER: Thanks very much.

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WITMORE: Julie Schumacher is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. Her book Dear Committee Members won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Her new novel, The Shakespeare Requirement, was published by Doubleday in 2018. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“Mark the Manner of His Teaching” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Randy Johnson and Steve Griffith at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. And if you find yourself in Washington, DC, come visit us at the Folger on Capitol Hill. See a performance in our Elizabethan theater and come face to face with a First Folio—the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays. We hope to see you here.

Thanks again for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.