In the Basement of the Ivory Tower
Confessions of an Accidental Academic
Viking: 288 pp., $25.95
In fall 2008, the Atlantic published an anonymous essay on the awful conditions in the basic writing courses of many colleges. "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" told the story of Professor X, a part-time adjunct professor with a passion for literature and a dedication to upholding standards. "Professor X," as the author called himself, penned a cri de coeur lamenting that we now encourage people to enter these courses without the preparation or ability to do college-level work. He compared contemporary inflated assumptions about the abilities of many non-traditional students to the inflated credit scores that helped fuel the housing bubble. Professor X had himself begun to teach, he tells us, because his family had taken on a mortgage they could scarcely afford, and he needed more than one job to make ends meet. He was stuck in "adjunct land" because the culture all around him refused to uphold its basic standards. The verve of his essay lay in Professor X's refusal to give in to the hypocrisy of the system that victimized him.
One can imagine someone, seeing that the controversial essay was attracting attention online, trying to recast it as a book. Why not just inflate into chapters the points made in paragraphs, add a bit on reactions to the original essay, and presto! A book! The result is a volume with an embarrassing amount of rhetorical padding and an excruciating number of repetitions. As a writing teacher, X probably realizes this, but how could he resist morphing his successful essay into his first published book?
Teachers of a certain age often like to complain about students who just don't get it. We all have stories of howlers committed by naive freshmen or of students who come up with lame excuses for not handing in work or who get caught plagiarizing. "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" is chock-full of bonehead tales from the classroom. Some are amusing, but after a while they leave a bad taste in the reader's mouth. Should a teacher be this condescending and still parade his virtuous upholding of true university standards?
Professor X was by his own account a student who loved to learn and who developed the noble ambition to be a writer. But his plans for a life devoted to what he repeatedly calls the very hard work of writing were derailed. "Meanwhile, my wife had gotten pregnant," he tells the reader in a howler of his own, and he wants us to understand that this meant that he had to get serious. Further shocking disappointments would be coming: An agent didn't like the book manuscript he finished. "I knew that I wouldn't be able to start another book," he writes. "I was on the road to forty years old." Writing is so hard!
With debts piling up and tensions mounting with his wife, X becomes a part-time teacher. Now he can really show somebody how hard writing is! He doesn't want to talk about race or class in his courses because these topics make him uncomfortable. He is surprised to discover that his nontraditional students are often indifferent to his pedagogical charms and that they are woefully unengaged. They don't even seem to care about failing. X rails against a system that pulls them into college when they have no ability to work at the appropriate level. He wonders whether this is the fault of postmodernism or maybe of the increasing number of female teachers (with all that feminine compassion!).
Professor X sees a corrupt system in which community colleges succeed in attracting more and more students who will fail (but pay tuition) because more and more companies are using college certification as a job requirement. Why should nurses or computer programmers or cops have to learn about literature? he complains. He does not ask this question because he believes that literature is relevant only to those pursuing a life of writing. No, Professor X really does love literature and writing, and he believes with admirable passion that learning to read and write is enormously fulfilling whatever your job may be. X rails against the system of attracting all these students into courses they can't pass because he despairs of their ability to learn (or his ability to teach them).
I wish we had heard more about the students who did learn from Professor X, and I bet there have been more than a few. The glimpses into his successes in the classroom don't support his call for more restrictions on who should go to college, but it is moving to hear about those students who surprised him with their insights, honesty and desire to learn.
Professor X's 2008 essay struck a chord because we were ashamed to be reminded that more than half of those who begin community college never finish and that the great majority of college students across the country are taught by woefully underpaid part-time instructors. We want to believe that all citizens should have the chance to develop literacy and the ability to think and write clearly. This cannot be reduced to job training. X is so frustrated by his classes because he wants his students to develop these capacities too. Despite his often cynical and pandering tone, Professor X does occasionally show that he cares about the welfare of those he is trying to teach. To his credit, he just wishes they cared more themselves.
Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of the forthcoming "Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past."