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In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic

Professor X

(Penguin; US: Mar 2012)

Americans have a schizophrenic relationship with education in general and higher education in particular. On the one hand, we worship education in the abstract as an equalizing force giving everyone in our supposedly mobile society a chance to make it on their own merits, and we tend to think that not only individuals, but also our larger society, benefits from more students enrolled in more formal education. On the other hand, we love to attack teachers, students, and the whole education system for being wasteful, dishonest, incompetent, out of touch with the real world… you name the insult, and an educator has probably heard it at one time or another.


We get inspirational stories of heroic teachers who really made a difference in their students’ lives, and tabloid-style coverage of evil teachers who abuse students, facilitate cheating on exams, or simply do as little work as possible while collecting a hefty paycheck. Needless to say, a discussion that considers only extremes can’t tell us much about how the American education system functions for most people, and a clear understanding of the average case is a necessity if we are to have any hopes of improving the system. What’s missing from the conversation is any rational discussion of what it’s like for an average person to work within the education system.


In this context, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is a welcome book, even if it has some major shortcomings. The germ of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, written by “Professor X”, was an article published in the Atlantic Monthly that gathered a lot of attention, no doubt encouraging the pseudonymous professor, as well as Penguin, to think that expanding this same material into a book would be the next logical step. Unfortunately, the book feels like a padded magazine article, without enough worthwhile information to justify the increased length and expense.


That objection aside, this is a fairly engaging book, describing a reality that should be intimately familiar to anyone involved in American higher education at the community college and sub-sub-Ivy level (Professor X says he teaches at the pseudonymous “Pembrook College” and “Huron State”, the former a small private college and the latter a two-year community college), yet is seldom recognized in our national discussion about higher education.


That reality is this: many students enrolling in college are not prepared to do college-level work—in fact, they don’t really have a clue what college-level work entails. Most colleges require students to pass some form of what Professor X terms English 101 and English 102, where students progress from writing short essays to writing a research paper, and exit the sequence prepared for the writing demands of their other courses. It sounds good in theory, but when the students arrive at English 101 without having mastered the simplest basics of writing—such as “a sentence is a group of words expressing a complete thought,” which Professor X says he learned in first grade from one Sister Mary Finbar—and on top of that have an extremely limited amount of knowledge outside of current topics in popular culture, and spend the bare minimum of time on their assignments, the whole exercise becomes a game of mutual deception and wishful thinking.


Teaching students to write well in such a context would be difficult for the most experienced teachers, and yet the introductory writing classes at many universities are staffed with adjuncts such as Professor X, who for the most part are badly paid, ineligible for benefits, and have limited to no job security. I don’t mean to knock the adjunct corps, many of whom are extremely dedicated and creative teachers, but if the job of teaching writing is so important (and nearly everyone seems to agree that it is), then why aren’t the tenured professors doing it?


The obvious answer to my rhetorical question is that the tenured professors are too expensive. A few decades ago, American universities figured out they could balance their budget on the backs of adjunct faculty, and they’ve been doing so ever since. If you want to see how little adjuncts make, check out the spreadsheet on the Adjunct Project blog.


When Professor X is describing his own experience in the classroom, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower sings with the kind of well-chosen details and clever turns of phrase that make narrative writing come alive: the “imperially slim dean”, the mature student characterized by “Christmas sweaters and a tidy chin-length bob”, essays that are “yawning canyons of illogic and error”, and his literature class as “just one more indignity visited upon the proletariat, like too-frequent traffic stops and shoes with plastic uppers and payday loans.”


The problem is that to get up to book length, Professor X includes all kinds of material of rather limited general interest, from the financial struggles of his family and the personal struggles of his marriage to the esoterica of the freshman English course (how do they pick the essays that go into the standard readers?). Were this book half the length, it would have been a stronger product. As it stands, it’s still worth reading, but you won’t miss much if you skip over some of the chapters entirely.

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