About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Professor X Redux: A Condescending Essay Becomes a Condescending Book

Several years back, Atlantic Monthly published an essay by an anonymous “Professor X” (“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower”) lamenting the quality of “non-traditional” students and questioning our nation’s push to send increasing numbers of people to college, even though they might be academically underprepared. I wrote a series of blog entries on the essay and on the issues it raises (see entries from June 8 to July 24, 2008. As well, see a later entry “Unpacking the College-for-all versus Occupational Training Debate” October 8, 2010.)


I also wrote a letter to Atlantic Monthly which the editors did not publish. Let me print it here, for it turns out that the essay has grown into a book, just published. And the letter suits it.


Dear Editor:

Like Professor X (“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” June, 2008), I too am frustrated, weary, at my wits’ end—but by the ever presence of articles like his. Almost every time “nontraditional” college students appear in the pages of magazines such as The Atlantic…or Harpers, or the NYT magazine, they are represented as failures who are compromising the integrity of post-secondary education.

I taught writing and literature for a number of years in a variety of programs for nontraditional students. People like Professor X’s open-faced cop and the ill-prepared Ms. L. populated my classes. Some didn’t do so well, but many did. And my experience is not at all unique.

Professor X seems well intentioned and attuned to the struggles his students have with his curriculum—and he is on the money in his criticism of his institutions’ culpability in his students’ dilemma. But he never turns a critical eye to his own curriculum. Take, just as one example, his use of the traditional research paper, an assignment that, in his words, few people would ever have to replicate in their workaday lives. If what he wants his students to achieve is some skill in doing systematic research and a sense of the complexity of history, there are a lot of other assignments he could devise, ones that draw on—rather than resist—his students’ backgrounds and career goals, that bring the humanities more meaningfully and deeply into their lives.

Since the professor teaches literature, let’s also consider his depiction of the characters in his set piece. His students have no, or severely limited, mental lives. Their emotions register on their faces, they groan or quip in boredom, they struggle haplessly, they haven’t read many books. But these people solve problems daily; navigate work and school and family; write and read (despite the professor’s characterization of them as semi-literate) as part of their jobs, hobbies, religious observations, and interactions with the state. None of this is tapped in the professor’s tale, and some of it could be turned to literary ends.

There are a lot of people who enter some form of post-secondary education poorly prepared. But their stores are more complex, more varied, richer than the chronicle of despair that we so often get. Please do better by them.


Mike Rose

Los Angeles


I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I get guilty pleasure imagining the publicity campaign for the book. Will the author’s publicist arrange masked book signings? Will he appear behind a curtain on television or have his voice disguised on the radio? This kind of anonymity befits a spy, or a high-class madam, or a whistle-blower (though movies have been made about Erin Brockovich and the guy who revealed price-fixing at Archer Daniels Midland). But a college professor who can’t connect to his students and criticizes the state of higher education?


There’s a slew of books and reports that are brutal on the state of higher ed. Professor X’s observations are hardly new; in fact, it seems almost ritualistic for college faculty to wring their hands about the sorry preparation of their students. “Students frequently enter college almost wholly unacquainted with English grammar.” That line could easily come from In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, but it was voiced by the president of Brown University in 1841.


The thing—the gimmick really—that makes the essay and now the book tangy is the sense that we’re getting the real inside scoop, the un-politically-correct but accurate assessment from the front lines—an assessment so bold that anonymity is required.


Professor X’s experience—his love of his subject and his frustration in trying to teach it to those who don’t share his background or passion—is a legitimate story to tell. And he can tell it in as snarky a way as he wants. It’s a free country. What is exasperating is that we rarely, if ever, read accounts in high-brow media of teachers facing the same kind of class who develop ways to reach their students or of students like Professor X’s who succeed. One reason for this absence, I’ve come to believe, is that most editors don’t come from the classes Professor X teaches. They don’t see the world from those desks. They can more easily identify with Professor X and the story line he offers. They have no reason to doubt it or to see it in a different light.


There are moments in Professor X’s account where he finds a kind of common ground with his students. Like him, they are trying to make ends meet. Like him, they have had their share of disappointments. And both professor and students don’t have much power in their compact. He, after all, is an adjunct faculty member. He would claim his status as justification for his anonymity—and, ok, he might be right. (Though if colleges are as indifferent as he claims, they might not care as long as they can staff one more section of freshman comp.) I only wish that these moments of emotional and existential connection could have translated into an intellectual grasp of the real pedagogical challenge before him and led him to a more generous and creative response to the students struggling to make sense of Joyce, and Faulkner, and the traditional research paper.

16 comments:

Laura Gibbs said...

Thank you for this great post! This book has been getting a lot of press, but what it really needs to do is provoke a re-examination of our teaching methods. If we have the goal of helping students to become confident and competent writers, and if the methods we are using now fail to do that, well, we MUST try to do something differently, right? When I started teaching college 10 years ago, I naively assigned research papers, expository papers, argumentative papers... and I was just as bored and frustrated as my own students were. When I changed that to a totally different approach - creative writing, on topics of the students' choice, writing for each other (not just for me), publishing their work online (and so learning how to make a website), with revision built into every stage of the semester-long process, OH, it changed everything: all the students make progress, and they can all feel proud of what they do, and I can be happy and proud also. I keep links to past projects at this website to inspire each new semester's group of students - and the writing gets better and better as a result. I understand Professor X's frustration (I feel very frustrated indeed when I see that students have been in formal schooling for 16 years and still are not competent at writing basic English)... but instead of just complaining, we must find solutions that work! :-)
E-Storybook Central: Student Projects

Lauren W. said...

I appreciate your commentary and agree wholeheartedly that this kind of rhetoric is all too common. You know, people get so excited when at risk children or teens thrive in school, but it seems like non-traditional and at risk college students are just considered a nuisance. What is it about the culture of post-secondary education that is so resistant to inclusion, diversity, and, you know, REAL LIFE? The University (writ large) seems to think that if students like it, if it's relevant to their lives, and if it responds to their needs, it must be inherently lax. I think there's also a tendency to interpret people with different lives, commitments, values, practices as a personal insult to the institution of higher ed. I read a lot of accounts of teachers appalled at their students' clothes, habits, etc.

Laura Gibbs said...

Lauren, I see the same kind of thing: there are many university faculty who are here out of a love of their subject matter (literature, physics, whatever that subject matter might be), without a real loyalty to the vocation of teaching and to students' success as a measure of our success as educators. The achievements that lead to getting a university teaching position (excelling in graduate school, publishing your research, hobnobbing and networking with future academic colleagues) are things that often take you far away from students, rather than bringing them closer.

lodesterre said...

Your refutation of this anonymous professor is right on the mark - he does nothing to adapt his curriculum in such a way that might actively engage his students. Instead, he hides behind anonymity and publicly attacks them all but calling them lazy and stupid. He reminds me of Oklahoma state rep Sally Kern who I saw on the Rachel Maddow show on Thursday night. Here is what she said:

"We have heard tonight already that in prison, there are more black people. Yes, there are. And that‘s tragic. It‘s tragic that our prisons here in Oklahoma, what are they, 99 percent occupancy? But the other side of the story perhaps we need to consider is this just because they‘re black that they‘re in prison? Or could it be because they didn‘t want to work hard in school? And white people oftentimes don‘t want to work hard in school or Asians oftentimes.
But a lot of times, that‘s what happens. I taught school for 20 years. And I saw a lot of people of color who didn‘t want to work as hard. They wanted it given to them."

The racists seem to be crawling out of the woodwork, some of them openly and some under the cover of anonymity.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Rose

​I am from Miramar College and I am Studying English in San Diego. My professor Manasse used your blogs for teach us. Now I am acquainted with your blogs and I enjoy it. I would like to tell you that I really like your opinion about professor X. I fit in on this context because I consider myself a non-traditional student. I am from Brazil. English is not my first language and unfortunately I cannot just focus in my study and on my days off I cannot be home studying as well. I have to deal and solve my problems every day like work and take care my family.
​Most of the students don’t have a rich family to support them or some students are not luck to have parents pays for their schools.
​I really appreciated your interest in protecting these non-traditional students.
Marcos

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr.Rose,
I am Ha, a student from San Diego Miramar College. I am studying ESOL 31- it is the reading class. My instructor, Professor Manasse gave us your three blog for the reading in class. After reading your three blogs, I was very interested in your first blog - it talked about traditional and non-traditional student. The first impression is that I am also a non-traditional student, so I feel like you are talking about me and I feel very happy. Because I am also as the others non-traditional students, we feel lost in this country and we don’t speak English as well. So we go to college, our problem is English, of course that is the truth. However, as your comment, maybe we are not good in English, but the others fields we can do well. Secondly, I am totally agree with you that we are not represented as a failure in college because I think traditional or non-traditional students also having some didn’t do well, but many did. It is the same idea when people say:” Ah, all of American people are bad”. That is not true because everything has both of sides bad and good. Do you agree with me? Finally, on behalf of non-traditional students, thank you for your thinking, your respond to Professor X’s blog. Your blog give us – who are non-traditional students the strength, the belief that there also have somebody think we are not worthless and we can be successful in college. Therefore, we feel the sympathy from your blog.Again, thank you for your reading my opinions and hope that we will have chance to read more your blogs in the future.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr.Rose,
Thank you for your blog about the non-traditional students. In this blog, we came to know the problems of non-traditional students and Professor X. It was very interesting to read the blog. I think the blog gives clues to Professor X on how to make students get interested in learning. As I understood, Professor X thinks that the non-traditional students cannot be successful because they cannot finish their projects on time. It looks like he was not trying to find the reasons why the students are not finishing their projects. I think Prof X has to try easy method of teaching so that, the students can understands properly and give more time if necessary to finish their projects. I strongly support with your opinion that non-traditional students also can be successful if they were offered right teaching methods. For example, creating new projects or assignments that would be useful when the students go to work. I myself as a non-traditional student, I can tell it is hard to focus on studies but it is not impossible. Also, it is student’s responsibility to make use of all resources at class and put efforts to learn skills and apply those skills to succeed in their daily life at home and work.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Rose
I read Professor X
I really like this blog because I leave a similar situation when I was in high school I was a
nontraditional student, I studied and work at the same time.
It’s very difficult situation to be a nontraditional student because you need time to go to school, work
and time for make a homework or study for a test, but at the same time I received more responsibility.
It was good experience for me because when I finish high school and start college I started looking for
job was easy for me than the guys was studied in a traditional because the companies are looking for
young people and some experience.
Thank you for the support to the nontraditional students is good to know that there’s people like you Dr. to
support us.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Rose,
in this blog Mike said that he understand about nontraditional students, and I want to thanks him for that. I totally agree with Mike Rose. Some nontraditional and traditional students did well, and some didn’t do so well because everyone is different. Too many Americans go to college straight from high school, live in a dorm, and get a degree after attending four years university. However, things have changed. Some of them are enrolled part-time, work full time, or have dependents of their own. Nontraditional students can experience distress just like typical students. In fact, their stress many sometimes be more intense given their greater responsibilities and adjustments. While nontraditional students often have much resilience, they can experience low self-esteem and anxiety when faced with these obstacles. Feeling this way is natural reaction to stress. After I read this blog I learn some nontraditional students although they have manage a lot things such as work, study, family, they still study hard to successful. Some Professor like Mike understand nontraditional students that helps us have fortitude to study and try our-best.

Thank you for taking times and reading my paragraph. I look forward to see your response and feedback.

Anonymous said...

dear dr. rose



Mr. Rose I feel very pledge writing a response to you because I know you support us “the non-traditional students” I’m very thankful with you for thinking that students from other countries have the ability to attend college, learn English and have a career so we can all have the opportunity to live better and I know is not about money but live with knowledge so we can teach are descendents what we know, also I want to say that people like you are doors open for us, your blog is so motivational for me and it make me express all my ideas and try to learn something new everyday so I can prove people like professor x their wrong.
Thanks mike rose I really liked your blog.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Rose, I am a non-traditional student, and I am studying English as a second language at Miramar College. I read this blog and wrote a journal about non-traditional students as an assignment in my reading class, and I agree with your blog. There are distinctions between non-traditional and traditional students. Thus, different positions and different situations need flexible curriculum. The professors like Professor X should look at their curriculum and not blame the students. I believe teaching any level needs different skills. For example, we know the teachers who work at primary schools have special skills to teach with children. Likewise, the teachers who work in high schools have different skills for this age. Therefore, the professor who teaches to non-traditional student should have different skills from the professor who teaches traditional students too. It is important to improve education in our society, and as we know, the successful society needs more educated people. I wholeheartedly appreciate your interest in non-traditional student’s education, and you write very important points about academic education which is very helpful. Also, it helped me to understand my reading.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Rose I am writing this letter for appreciates all your effort and tells that I like all your blogs. I read whole the blogs and I was agree about them. I am studying as a non-traditional student in college. I am trying to improve my basic skills in writing, speaking and reading. Especially in writing and speaking because when I know how to write a paragraph or an essay I would be able to write for other courses require writing and when I learn to speak with less accent it helps me to have more confidence and be able to communicate with other people and talk to them and I think I would feel better about myself. Actually I should find part-time job besides studying to help my family and for having independent financial sources. I admire you because your opinion is against Professor X about non-traditional students that you believe most of them have a lot of abilities for being successful in college. As you know it is hard to study and work together. You have to balance your time to do both well. As I mentioned before in my first journal I am strongly agree with your idea that people like Professor X should consider the backgrounds, interests and history of these students so that is meaningful to them. i always keep you in my mind as one of the best person in my life

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Rose
I read Professor X
I really like this blog because I leave a similar situation when I was in high school I was a
nontraditional student, I studied and work at the same time.
It’s very difficult situation to be a nontraditional student because you need time to go to school, work
and time for make a homework or study for a test, but at the same time I received more responsibility.
It was good experience for me because when I finish high school and start college I started looking for
job was easy for me than the guys was studied in a traditional because the companies are looking for
young people and some experience.
Thank you for the support to the nontraditional students is good to know that there’s people like you to
support us.
Sincerely

Anonymous said...

Dear Mike Rose,
First of all I’d like to tell you that most of your blogs are very helpful to us, you’re an inspiration especially for non-traditional student like me. I have gained lot of information, ideas and learned new vocabulary words every time we read about your topics. The one that interests me is about professor X. I totally agreed with your contrary to his beliefs. It’s a free country; everyone should treat equally and fair, give a chance to others to share your passion of teaching. Non-traditional students like me have a capability of pursuing our goals even if it takes a long time to succeed. I believe that we are also intelligent, more complex and hard working people despite of being busy in our daily lives. In that case, Professor X should encourage his students to be more productive and give a lot of effort to learn. He should teach those students in so many various ways that are fun to do and easy to understand. I wanted to say you are a very good writer, thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas to us. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Dear Doctor Mike Rose,

I am ESOL student in Miramar college we were reading all your blogs this semester with professor Mark Manasse. We read all your blogs in class and then we summarized the story and picked up some new vocabulary which was the funniest part because I love to learn the new vocabulary. I just had few questions for you it’s not important to respond me back immediately because I know you are supper busy with your life. First I like to ask you (were you nontraditional student?) (Second I like to ask you why you were against with other professors about the nontraditional students? Or why do you feel good and positive about the nontraditional students?)
At the end I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful blogs and all your kind words about nontraditional students that means a lot to us to do our best at the college I really appreciated your support and love to meet you in person one day soon.


Sincerely.
Farzan Jannesar

Anonymous said...

Dear. MIKE ROSE'S
M y name is Bashar I'm a student at Miramar college. In my class ESOL 31 my teacher Mr. Mark Manasse gave the students during the semester three blog's wrote by mike roses. The first one was about professor X. and the second one was about Kevin's poor like and the third one about why are you going to college. These blogs showed me something's in college and showed me how mike roses who he defend the students rights in college. I appreciate mike roses for making clear pictures about students rights in college and thanks for your time Mr. Mike Roses.