Sparked by the article in the June Atlantic Monthly, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” my last three entries on this blog have dealt with teaching non-traditional college students and, more specifically, with teaching literature and remedial writing. Readers responded with close to 35 comments, many of them long, all of them thoughtful. Collectively, they contained assignments and techniques, anecdotes drawn from personal and professional experience, educational philosophies and thoughts about the social order. In sum, they contained a great deal of the wisdom of the classroom.
I want to dwell on that on-the-ground wisdom, for we don’t get much of it in policy deliberations about remediation in college or about education in general. And, as I wrote in a previous entry, we tend to get a pretty dreary and dispiriting rendering of non-traditional students and remediation in the media. Witness the Atlantic Monthly article.
So let’s go to the readers’ comments.
They display a commitment to teaching (some from people new to the game, others in it for more than thirty years) and an affinity for writing, books, literacy. Together, the writers of these comments offer a wealth of suggestions on authors to use and how to use them, on assignments and the sequencing of assignments, on ways to play back and forth between speech and written text and among and across books and stories from very different times and places. Reading these suggestions – some of which are embedded in descriptions of teaching – you get a feel for the intellectual sizzle of these teachers’ classrooms.
Related to the above is a refreshing discussion of culture, teaching, and learning that emerges in the collective comments. The writers sometimes disagree with each other, but in the aggregate you read people thinking hard about how to understand and honor the complex cultural backgrounds of their students while not reductively defining them by those backgrounds alone.
So, too, there is a rich discussion of social class and education. There is mention of economics and who gets what kind of education, both before and during college, the funding, the resources available. And there is a good deal of discussion about the toll some students’ class backgrounds have taken on their current levels of skill. But this poor academic preparation is not a cognitive prison house, and the writers offer powerful testimony to the achievements of underprepared students, given the right conditions. (This general issue of social class and achievement is an especially important one to me, and I plan to devote a future entry to it.)
It was interesting how many writers speculate about the likely education of the author of the Atlantic article. Professor X’s discontent might well originate in his own graduate study in English, study that typically includes little serious training in teaching, particularly teaching literature to a wide sweep of humanity. Such narrow graduate education will affect the kinds of intellectual relationships a teacher is able to foster.
And I was struck by – and savored – the feel for teaching you get reading these thirty-plus comments. The detail ranges from the specific technique and strategy (reading a paragraph from “Araby” in multiple voices), to long-haul reflection on the purpose of education, to the pleasures of the work itself. “I love to pull my teaching cart out into the dark, smelling the trees and flowers that are now only shadows,” writes a community college instructor, “knowing that I and my students are tired from doing something worthwhile.”
Some of the students in the courses taught by these teachers will struggle and not do well – though I’d bet those students will be treated with dignity and with an eye toward their future development. And some students will do just fine, and from the comments we get a sense of their resilience and ability. We also get a sense of teaching as a subtle and humane art.
All of this takes us back inside the basement of the Ivory Tower and enables us to rethink what might go on in that basement and, for that fact, how the basement might be closer – might be made closer – to the rest of the tower itself.