Sunday, May 18, 2008

"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower"

.....Just in time for the end of the semester, the Atlantic Monthly publishes "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," by one Professor X. The writer is a self-described adjunct instructor who teaches composition and literature in the evenings at a small private college and a community college.
.....His students? Remarkably like many of ours, or at least, remarkably like the ones about whom Rebel Girl spends a lot of time worrying:
....."For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé.
.....Some of their high-school transcripts are newly minted, others decades old. Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family. They work during the day and come to class in the evenings. I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.
.....My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses. For many of my students, this is difficult."
.....The trouble? Professor X writes: Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

.....He fears that the institution will condemn him but what happens is this:
....."What actually happens is that nothing happens. I feel no pressure from the colleges in either direction. My department chairpersons, on those rare occasions when I see them, are friendly, even warm. They don’t mention all those students who have failed my courses, and I don’t bring them up. There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment."
And later:
....."America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.
.....Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades. "
.....While Rebel Girl doesn't agree with all his points or conclusions, and has serious reservations about the curriculum as described, Professor X brings up enough good points that she recommends the piece in its entirety. It's available online by clicking here.

.....Hat tip to IVC's own Professor Z for pointing this one out.


Anonymous said...

What happened to these students in high school?

torabora said...

Both the R's and the D's have been so hell bent to ship our factory jobs overseas that America is a shell of our former industrial prowess. This pleases their corporate masters bottom lines.

To further cripple what industry we have left the open borders lobby has allowed millions to flee their own countries lack of opportunity to eviscerate much of the blue collar opportunity left here, and this immigration drives wages down.

To make things worse, our high schools graduate semi-literates.

Underfunded community colleges are expected to take up the slack and see their funding diverted elsewhere. So the CC's respond in part by cutting vocational programs.They also cap faculty wages and cut benefits which turns away potential future teachers. Who wants to board a sinking boat?

The death spiral has been initiated. Without a cogent, honest ,and comprehensive reordering of our society we are going to be in for some tough times.

To those that believe that we are the product of "intelligent design" I say that you are full of crap...just look around you!!!

DtB has rightly focused on getting the Goo out of SOCCCD. We need to get the "Goo" out of America as well. When did incompetence become OK?

Anonymous said...

This was written by someone who enjoyed reading and writing from early childhood. Some of us did not enjoy reading and writing as children.
Some of us figure it out later in life. However, once we figure it out we work toward the goal of loving to read and write more coherently.
The problem Professor X is pointing out is not with America being over idealistic. The problem is we are impatient! Students do not want to learn the basics before attempting English 101.
Prof. X talks of vocational education and I agree with him on that issue, but most vocational educational courses require Math and English.

Anonymous said...

I want some development and detail in Rebel Girl's response to Professor X. Which of Professor X's points are his "good points," in her view? What are her "serious reservations" about what he writes? I also quickly re-read the article looking for the "curriculum as described." Maybe it's just me, but I couldn't find any description of curriculum. So, seriously, Rebel Girl, tell us more.

Anonymous said...

As for TB, I will "come out" right now (anonymously?) and say that I think the Intelligent Design arguments are interesting and worth studying, whether they ultimately work or not. I do know that competently and confidently evaluating such arguments (about irreducible complexity, fine tuning of the universe, etc.) takes a combination of scientific and philosophical sophistication that I do not have. I also suspect, admittedly without knowing for sure, that you, TB, don't have the required sophistication either.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 2;20 is certainly demanding!

Isn't it enough for Rebel Girl to be posting on the weekend?

I read the article when it arrived in my mailbox and I think I can guess some of her "serious resverations" about the curriculum Prof. X alludes to (it's worth pointing out that it is the curriculum Rebel Girl has serious reservations about - read more carefully, won't you?).

The curriculum - as described - is almost all modes - compare and contrast, process analysis, etc. The IVC English dept. abandoned teaching theose elements in isloation long ago. He also teaches - so it seems - comp courses that are entirely lit-based - another clear challenge for developing writers.

I'll return now to grading papers. Hope that helped.

Anonymous said...

i bet amber texted that note from her cell phone. :)

Anonymous said...

oh Amber!

cero said...

He is teaching at too high a level for my students. I am old fashioned and would like to do what he does - I admire him for it - but it just would not work.

Also, I *might well* have told Ms. L. to drop the course. I would also have helped her out more, even though coming up with the topic was part of the assignment.

It is true that this writer clearly grew up reading and writing, and it is also true that it is hard to imagine what it is like for people who did not.

One of my students spelled the word prose on the final like this: "Pro's".

Anonymous said...

Hey! That's not fare!


Terrence said...

This is a letter to the editor of the Atlantic that I just sent. I hope the author of this article reads it.

Dear Editor,

I am an associate professor of English and Creative Writing and have been teaching for over ten years: 1997-2002 as an adjunct, and 2003-present full-time. The article "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" is infuriating and insulting on myriad levels, and so this is a response to the article, as well as a kind of open letter to Professor X.

First, the use of an alias is pathetic. I understand that Professor X wants to retain the two classes he is given the opportunity to teach each term, and so he does not want to anger his departments, schools, or students by taking personal responsibility for his whiny, self-absorbed, arrogant, condescending, elitist, and ultimately short-sighted declarations and ideas. But if Professor X were truly as noble as his highfalutin tone, he would have used his real name. Anyone can throw stones from behind a nameless wall.

So of course, one of my biggest problems with Professor X is his tone. He sounds like a condescending, judgmental, pompous, arrogant, and entitled child. He says, " students and I discuss Shakespeare, Dubliners, poetic rhythms, and Edward Said." He says specifically "my students," and so I wonder: Does he discuss Shakespeare and Joyce and Said with the same students that he claims have a "jaw-dropping lack of ability", who are "not ready for high school...much less college"? Is this an example of amazing instantaneous comprehension development? Incredible irony, that in the classroom his students are barely simian, yet on the quad they are Ph.D candidates? Or is this just a fancifully simple glitch in the author's quasi-memoir-esque recounting of detail? [Beware, Professor X: if you are hoping to get a book deal out of this, publishers actually care these days if you lie and make things up.]

Professor X tries to hide his true feelings about his students by attempting to form some kind of connection with them. He claims that they all chose these schools by using Mapquest, not U.S. News & World Report; that they have "all screwed up," this being his own second job, and that "all any of us want is a free evening." He tries to instill a sense of comradery by detailing how they all smell of coffee and tuna oil, and how they must endure together classrooms that are dirty and littered.

A few points here: Professor X makes the students who have chosen these schools sound like lazy idiots. Yes, a school might be chosen because of its proximity to one's home or place of work (as Professor X himself admits to doing in his own job application process). But the inference that lack of effort on the part of the students is the main driver behind this decision is what is most insulting. Keep in mind that the cost of higher education is also and often a factor. I've had students commute from other boroughs, even come from out of state, to attend our school and finish their degrees. I've also taught many night classes, as both an adjunct and full-timer, and never have I felt my students were "reeking" of the food they had eaten during the day. And dirty and overcrowded classrooms, yes, it's a problem on occasion. But as long as there is some place to sit for each student and no food on the chalkboard, class can be conducted. [The litter is in your brain, Professor X, and in your heart. Sweep it up...clean it up.]

These details are a ruse, titillating shimmers in the facade Professor X is trying to create to evoke sympathy from the reader, casting the illusion of parity between himself and his students, even as he differentiates himself with claims that he and he alone is one of many "academic button men" who must "lower the hammer" as he roams the halls "like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book." He says, "It is with me and my red pen that that ideal [of college being for everyone] crashes and burns." So it is obvious that Professor X does NOT see himself as one of them, or else he would not separate himself with such severe--and melodramatically overwritten--imagery. [Again Professor X, if you're working on that book, beware...]

My greatest contention with Professor X is his assertion that some people shouldn't bother with college, or are not worthy of the experience since they are predestined to be police officers, state troopers, health care workers, or municipal employees. But professors should set standards and judge work in their field, not decide who is or is not worthy of attempting college level work or participate in the college experience: an experience that can most certainly be of value to anyone, regardless of grades.

This incessant passive-aggressive judgment cast upon his students with a self-centered, hubristic elitism is palpable in almost every paragraph. He says, "I love trying to convey to a class my passion for literature, or the immense satisfaction a writer can feel" [Look out, Publishers--that proposal or lame first novel from Professor X is on its way to you right now...]; then, "When I am at my best, and the students are in an attentive mood...the room crackles with energy"; and then, "Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity," and so forth.

As you can see, it is always about Professor X first and the students second. Is this a trait in some if not many teachers? Yes. Is it a good or beneficial or productive one for the students? No.

Even the "guilt" he feels for failing Ms. L is completely narcissistic and self-absorbed, culminating in the fantasy of his grading being the subject of a New York Times article. I suppose I understand the fantasy, since that reason very well might be the only way Professor X will ever be noted in The New York Times.

He talks about inevitably losing "faith in tasks, as I'm sure my students do." This statement possibly defines Professor X's failure as a teacher most concisely. Why would students have faith in the work they are doing in a classroom, if the person who is supposed to be 'teaching' them does not have faith? He uses phrases like "best students" and "worst students." Do you think that this kind of derisive and judgmental attitude--which, again, can only be espoused behind an alias--does not come across in the classroom and one-on-one conversation? So why wouldn't they lose faith in your classroom, Professor X?

Talking to some of my colleagues in light of this article--after commencement no less--we could not help but discuss the students we'd come to know through the years who had been put down or pigeon-holed, some by social strictures, some by their families; students who ultimately grew and performed at a high level--much higher than they had ever expected they could. And why? Because they believed in their right to higher education, so they enrolled, took classes, did the work. For some it took four years. Others five, six, eight, fifteen, twenty. But ultimately they got what they deserved--some C's, some B's, some A's. But most importantly, that degree, which might have benefited their jobs, or not; but ultimately enriched their lives through the achievement alone.

Of course there were those who tried and decided that college wasn't for them--but that doesn't mean that they received failing grades necessarily. And it can't be taken for granted that their decision to pursue higher education and the effort and experience that resulted from that decision wasn't of some kind of value.

Which brings me to grades and grading. Professor X seems to look at the grade of C as some kind of merciful appeasement, and does so with absolute condescension. But not all grades are either F or A, as Professor X seems to believe. [Hey Professor X, why not work with Ms. L on some rewriting so she can lift her grade? Just a thought...more on that later.] There doesn't seem to be any nuance in the article's discerning as to how grades are assessed. Yes, there are F's, but there are also B's and C's, and even D's, and sometimes, given particular circumstances, even these less than stellar grades can reflect college level work.

I had a student just this past semester who took six literature courses at once because they were his final requirements, and due to personal reasons, he had to finish this semester to receive his degree. He took all the classes—three English lit courses, covering from Chaucer to 1940; the Structure of Modern English; Critical Approaches to Adolescent Literature; and a Senior Seminar in Historical Fiction. He average a C+ in all these classes. Was his work in all of these classes that of a top-notch scholar? No. But is it college level work to do all the reading and all the papers in six English literature courses and average a high C (when you consider that on average, most full-time students take anywhere from 4-5 courses per semester in different disciplines)? Absolutely.

And do you think students at schools that are not 'colleges of last resort' don't get B's and C's and F's? Give me a break.

Moving on, the schism created by Professor X between daytime and nighttime students, and that between adjunct and full-time professors, is equally generalized to a fault. At our school, both full-time and adjunct professors teach day and night classes. The only thing that might differentiate the day and nighttime students would be age. Our nighttime students are often older than your average college student. They often work full-time and have families and because of that they often take their studies extremely seriously--because they cannot afford to waste time. They are by no means "the worst students" who are inherently taught by adjuncts. I can also assure Professor X that at our school, our daytime students are far from the coddled lot that he describes, fascinated and obsessed with their cell phones instead of their studies, pampered by the education paid for by their parents.

Here I would like to make my own generalization: There are students who work hard, and students who don't. In the end, everyone gets what they deserve.

I do agree that college is a business. It would be naive, if not insipid, to state that there aren't colleges out there that profit from certain admissions requirements being 'loose.' But I refute the notion that American culture and its stress on the importance of higher education is misguided or erroneous. And it is obvious that Professor X wants to blame the system of higher education, American culture, students in general, and anyone else he can get his hands on, instead of personally taking responsibility for what takes place in his classroom.

Hey Professor X, have you ever heard of 'office hours'? Have you ever heard of spending a little extra time on a consistent basis with a student to try to help that student learn? It's called 'being a teacher,' and not some disillusioned wanna-be writer who didn't finish his half-baked Ph.D dissertation who feels he should be doing more with his life but doesn't have the guts, talent, or work ethic to actually do it.

It is particularly worrisome how Professor X talks about his approach to stating the goals of the course and laying out expectations, but when you look at even his highly edited interaction with Ms. L, one can see his lack of effort in actually trying to work with her to help her improve.

He shows his disdain for Ms. L immediately: "I knew that there would be trouble with Ms. L." Is Ms. L adorned in red or blue bandanas? Does she have a Glock hanging from her waistband or a tattoo of a teardrop by the corner of her eye? No--she is simply not familiar with computers and the internet, a problem that my own mother and father have, a problem that many people might have because they are not of a generation immediately familiar with technology, or maybe don't have a home computer because not everyone, Professor X, has a new Mac or PC with a wireless router in their home. But Professor X does not think about this, does not go out of his way to help her, because he is not sympathetic at all. He judges her by saying, "The concept of a link was news to her." Then he blames her for not learning: "She wasn't absorbing anything. The wall had gone up...the wall of defeat and hopelessness and humiliation."

Professor X, of course a wall is going to go up if a student senses you are judging and ridiculing her, albeit silently. Instead of compassionately reaching out to her and sympathizing with her lack of experience, he tells her, "You have some computer-skills deficits. You should address them as soon as you can." Then he tries to shove her off to the librarian for a tutorial--again not helping or taking responsibility.

I don't know if this is recalled dialogue or true dialogue. Either way, Professor X should be working in a corporate human resources department if this is how he talks to people. Because people don't learn when you talk to them like they are drones or cyborgs. But Professor X seems very proud of his use of the word 'deficits.' I would argue that Professor X has many 'deficits' of his own, first and foremost being teaching and people skills.

"Computer-skills deficits"--who talks like this?

I'm not saying that Professor X, or any professor, should hand-hold every student on every issue, every subject. But what Professor X has shown is the polar opposite: an unwillingness to help, much less go the extra mile, due to an apathetic predisposition to write-off Ms. L, and others like her, as having no hope, no reason, and no right to even be in the classroom.

By the end of this article it is obvious that Professor X actually enjoys what he perceives to be his role as the destroyer of collegiate dreams. He relishes the fact that his sad and misguided experience has afforded him the opportunity to write an article for The Atlantic, even though he embarrassingly can't take any credit for it, lest it be known to the public what a coward he really is. His article is spent dramatizing if not glorifying the problem for his own selfish purposes, and he does not mention or hint at any kind of solution. If there is any value to the article it's that it clearly demonstrates that Professor X is a big part of the problem.

Professor X looks down on his students, and so his students and schools would be better off if he were not teaching. His disdainful judgment is palpable in every sentence, from his description of "a future state trooper" who snorts; to his boiling down of Ms. L's hopes and dreams as "a feel-good segment on Oprah"; to his declaration that his "students don't read much, as a rule." How would Professor X know any of this about his students? For it seems obvious that he consciously disconnects himself from them. So I can only presume that this is pontificating conjecture--copywriting really--for an article over which Professor X (at least I surmise) was feeling damn-near orgasmic about having the chance to write.

If he spent nearly as much time thinking about his teaching, as he did thinking about how to craft such a smarmy and solipsistic article--and how to actually get it published--he might turn out to be a decent teacher. But I doubt that will be the case.

Of course there are those who share the views of Professor X--full-timers, adjuncts, new teachers, old teachers, whomever. Teacher to teacher, heart to heart, I would say to them as I would say to Professor X: find a new line of work. Or better yet, try to be a part of the solution by finding ways to improve your teaching, and the department, and ultimately the school, instead of continuing to piss and swim in your own tiny puddle of malaise that you are so desperately trying to peddle for profit, but in which you are instead undoubtedly drowning.


Terrence Cheng
Assistant Chair and Associate Professor
Dept. of English
Lehman College-CUNY
Bronx, NY 10468

carly said...

The writer strikes me as bitter, disappointed that he/she could not find employment in a first (second or third) rate institution of higher learning. And the result of this bitterness is that he/she doesn't teach appropriately. Rather, this person attempts to teach skills using themes and works of literature that are not only of no interest to the students he/she is charged with teaching these skills, but irrelevant to the task as well.

Why in the world should students whose major is NOT English be required to engage in work on literary analysis? Why is this English class not geared simply and directly toward helping these students become good (or at least adequate) expository writers? And why does this bitter snob of a professor not try to make the subject matter interesting so as to engage students and enable them to grasp the material/approach more easily?

Even at Harvard a variety of (required) Expository Writing classes are offered so students my choose one that deals in subject matter that interests them. The core requirement for literature/art may be fulfilled by several very different classes. If students at the top of the "ivory tower", students who are motivated and well prepared as well as highly intelligent, are given choices that enable them to hone their skills via things that interest THEM, why in the WORLD would this pompous fool despair because students in the "basement" don't/can't grasp the lesson when it puts them to sleep?

That said, I agree with the basic premise: we send too many people to college and fail to honor the vocations. The message moves me to shake my head "yes"--the messenger, not so much.

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