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.
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.
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.