Beneath my "in" box last week I found a heartbreaking letter from a colleague in search of advice and help. Unfortunately the first sheet containing the no-doubt gracious salutation, and the final page bearing the signature and address, are missing. (Mistakenly forwarded to the Budget Committee, I fear, with the latest draft of my Five Year Plan for the Capitalization of the Romance Languages by 1990—a phased program based almost entirely on the operation of a food truck that will dispense French toast, Spanish omelets, and pasta salad.)
I turn to Speaking Out in the hope that the writer will recognize this central fragment and communicate with me again. The surviving portion reads:
if not the end of civilization as we know it, whichever comes first.
The crisis is, you will have anticipated, the one that is raging in the offices and cloakrooms of the liberal arts sector of the University (the only members of the University who teach in cloakrooms—a slight jeopardy to this tidy compartmentalization having been resolved by declaring the Geology department an Honorary Liberal Art), namely:
The new stationery.
What may or may not be a complaint was raised by Professor Alvin Rubinstein in a recent Speaking Out letter; but his penchant for courtly circumlocution led him to such phrases as "a public relations gaffe of monumental proportions…incomparable tastelessness…the whim of self-indulgent administrators…" and the obscure "…antithesis of distinction." So it is not clear where he stands.
A 25-year supply of the new corrugated onionskin having been ordered, it is too late to do much about the paper qua paper, unless, perhaps, one knows of a struggling lesser institution that might purchase the overage at discount and and hire neighborhood graffitists to write in "Not the…" above "University of Pennsylvania."
It is not too late, however, for a brilliant if overly modest servant of the people to fill in the important gaps in the new "identity program" of which our stationary is but the first move. According to Dr. Webber, the whole of our fundraising future depends upon something called a "cohesive image," and he is reluctant to stick a band-aid over the problem. Thus we have a Manual instructing us in the proper typing of letters on the new stationary (relevant pages enclosed).
Despite the favorable reception given its thrilling plot, the Manual has been criticized by some scholars for that famous plague that infests the work of so many beginning authors: lacunae. For example:
Although one is told precisely where to start typing and precisely where to end, it never tells one what to put in between. One looks in vain for a list of authorized words, sentences or paragraphs to fill the intervening spaces should one's personally thought-up letter fall short of the required margins. Since it would be churlish to attack the principle of uniform visual representation for all correspondence emanating from One University, obviously there are problems for the generous thinker who might write a few words too many—but how much more so for the efficient soul who takes it literally when told that "A simple 'yes' or 'no' will suffice."! The loquacious writer can simply stop at the end of the line, creating an air of mystery that intrigues the reader and leads to a multimillion-dollar contract to do the screenplay for Edwin Drood. It is the crisp correspondent who must fill out 2,396 blank letterspaces if the answer is "yes." And 2,397 if it's "No!"
I hope you realize what an opportunity lies here for the rejuvenation of your famous dissertation, which I understand is languishing in a low-tech "file drawer" and readable only by the human eye.
With the new PC's, I am told, you can simply specify the length of the passage you want "booted" onto a "disk" for "machine-readable" "retrieval." (Dr. Stonehill took the trouble to caution that it is a mistake ever to put one's actual "boot" anywhere near the "disk," although why it has to be "retrieved" if no one has kicked it anywhere is a subject for further research.) But the point, as you will have grasped well ahead of me, is that your dissertation can be "booted" in bits and pieces of a descending order of character-counts so that the writer of a too-short letter simply instructs his or her machine to "retrieve" an appropriate chunk of Cherpack and tack it on.
What could be more uniform than to complete all University of Pennsylvania correspondence with exactly similar passages of a well know work?
The vice presidents in charge of spacing and margin control will be greatly relieved if you will undertake this effort, for they live in terror that renegade letter writers will invent their own fillers, leading to a mishmash of Paul Miller jokes, affirmative action pledges, and minutes of the Senate Executive Committee. Not that anyone questions the substance of these excellent fillers, you understand; it is only that we risk forgetting that form comes first.
Your colleagues on the Senate Committee for Academic Freedom will bless you as well, for the caseload building there and in the Grievance Commission is absolutely crushing. Through oversight, you see, the writers of the Manual failed to codify the sanctions to be levied for failure to set the margins 10 spaces to the left. Thus we are seeing disparate punishments for the same crime: One dean merely instituted proceedings for removal of tenure, which SCAFR knows how to cope with; but another, egged on by powerful corporate alumni in Wall Street, insisted that the letter be typed over again.
Further, the Committee on the Economic Status of the Faculty would be spared the most awesome decision in its history—whether to request a salary increase next year, or ask the Administration to use these funds to hire additional secretaries to retype correspondence until it fits. Already the overtime for security personnel to spot-check Sheldon's outgoing correspondence for spacing violations has invaded the funds set aside for the Commencement, so it is going to be held on Franklin Field this year. And someone who shall be nameless was caught using his graphics program to fill out a line with little, perky, patterned bow ties that were expressly outlawed by a Committee of Visual Arts found recently in the basement of Meyerson Hall; so now we have an expensive lawsuit, if not the cost of a golden parachute, on our hands.
If nothing else will persuade you, do consider that once your dissertation is rendered "machine-readable" you will never again lack for readers. Those little machines are absolutely tireless: no eyestrain, no laryngitis, no teetering on the platform after a little wine for the stomach's sake. Somewhere on campus, 24 hours a day
The real (authentic, not made-up) letter ends here. I urge the author to identify him or herself. Experts tell me that treatment may still be effective in this phase.
— Clifton Cherpack, Professor and Chaise, Romance Languages
Originally published in Almanac May 13, 1986