Professor X Is Back

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower describes the realities of teaching writing as an adjunct to poorly prepared students -- and questions whether many of them should be in college.
March 29, 2011

In his (anonymous) new book, Professor X describes a scene he witnessed in a departmental office. A frazzled student comes in and wants the secretary to get a message to her professor. The secretary asks the professor's name, and the student turns out to be unaware -- at the midpoint of the semester.

The secretary shows no judgment but proceeds to figure out a way to identify the professor:

"Male or female?"


"Tall or short?"


"Blond or brunette? Light hair, dark hair?"

She has dreads.

By process of elimination, the secretary identifies the instructor and promises to deliver the message. The secretary never smirks -- even after the student leaves. The student is treated with respect. Professor X marvels at the commitment of staffers to helping students at the colleges at which he teaches. "Nowhere are employees friendlier," he writes. "The staffers could not be more accommodating to students who have lost their way in the forests of financial aid or class schedules."

But his book is ultimately less about that devotion than the realities that test it. In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic (Viking) tells of the author's experiences teaching at two decidedly non-elite colleges -- a four-year private institution he calls Pembrook and a community college he calls Huron State. The book grew out of a much-debated 2008 article with the same title that Professor X published in The Atlantic.

The book describes how Professor X fell into adjuncting (a mortgage and his wife's idea of how he could use his M.F.A.), the hiring process in which colleges are portrayed as desperate for talent (but not so desperate as to pay much), and the realities of teaching those who enroll at essentially open admissions institutions. The book mixes his personal narrative with quotes from various studies about teaching at community colleges or access-oriented institutions, and covers such topics as remediation, grade inflation, student goals and more.

While Professor X tells some inspiring stories about ambitious, bright students, most of the stories are decidedly negative. "The students at Pembrook and Huron State leave me with two choices: teach at a true college level and fail everybody, or dumb things down enough so that more students can pass," he writes. "For a long time, I didn't know what to do, and so I did both, or neither, depending on the class, depending on my philosophy, which was constantly in flux. I would teach at a college level, but then someone would ask me if The New York Times was a newspaper or a magazine."

By the end of the book, Professor X is questioning whether many of his students belong in college at all -- even if discouraging them would also eliminate his source of adjunct income.

"I have had no choice but to recognize that many of my students have no business being in college," he writes. "Putting an end to their participation without sentencing them to a life in the aisles of Wal-Mart would require that Americans relinquish their ill-thought-out love affair with higher education. Which would require an abandonment of the cockeyed optimism that has taken over our educational discourse. Which would require an embracing, again, of simple job training.... Which would require the colleges, particularly the lower-tier and community colleges, to rethink who they are enrolling, who they are serving, what the purpose of the whole rigmarole is. Which might lead to some streamlining, and the elimination of my job."

Professor X declined to be interviewed directly, but answered questions via e-mail (with his publisher acting as go-between). The questions and answers follow:

Q: Does anyone at either of your institutions know that you are the author of the Atlantic piece (and now this book)? Did anyone you know try to discuss your views on the magazine article or similar topics? How did you handle it?

A: I have been scrupulous about hiding my identity -- three may keep a secret if two are dead, and all that. I enjoy teaching at my colleges, and would like to continue doing so. My book is fair to the colleges; nonetheless, rare is the organization that relishes the spotlight of attention. I have no desire to be Ex-Professor X. My hidden identity has yet to result in any farcical scenes: no one has come up to me clutching the Atlantic article and saying, "Can you believe this junk? What kind of a moron would write this crap?" I’ve been spared having to stammer anything like, "Well, I’m sure he’s a nice person, even if you don’t agree, don’t you think? Uh…." In the circles I travel in, the subjects of ballooning college enrollments and underprepared students scarcely arise -- well, maybe once a year, after Christmas dinner, when the night grows long and the talk bellicose.

Q: Many instructors of colleges courses are in just your situation -- they earned an M.F.A. or Ph.D., but didn't necessarily ever learn how to teach, and certainly didn't learn how to teach students who never learned to write a basic sentence. Any advice on how colleges (or grad programs) should train people to do the kind of teaching you do?

A: I don’t think I quite agree with your question’s premise. Though there is a large industry that disagrees with me, namely the Education Graduate School industry, I have grave doubts that learning "how to teach" is necessary before any expert in his field can pass on his skills. I mean no disrespect to the profession of teaching, but I’ve been effectively taught lots of stuff in my life, and very little of it was by people with degrees in education. I am a writer, and I believe a fairly skilled one; given enough time, I can teach anyone how to write. Years ago I taught middle school, and I worked with students well below grade level; I was able to teach some of them to write nice, basic sentences. I can likewise sharpen the skills of proficient writers. I can bring them to the next level. What I can’t do is the impossible: I can’t do it all at the same time. I can’t provide college-level instruction or demand college-level work when students need remediation; neither can I provide remediation and call it college-level.

Q: Do you think the kinds of reforms you would like to see have any chance of happening?

A: Stranger things have happened. At least the issues are in the popular consciousness and under discussion. People are getting good and fed up with assuming all kinds of college debt when there might not be a good reason to. They’re starting to feel like suckers, but their discontent might not be enough to effect any change. The nation’s urge toward college is a powerful one, and many potent voices, including those belonging to the colleges themselves, are in favor of ever-expending enrollment. America’s sense of self-worth is tied up in its college numbers. To force fewer people into college might be a societal good, but it’s hard to imagine Barack Obama gripping the sides of a podium and announcing: "College enrollments fell by almost 9 percent last year, and I couldn’t be prouder of the American people." This is not what modern industrialized nations do. We feel we’d be laughed at.

Q: I suspect many Inside Higher Ed readers, plenty of whom work at institutions like Huron State or Pembrook, may have a cynical reaction to your book. I can imagine them saying that you are trying to make money by mocking their institutions to the outside world, and that this will only help critics who want to cut education spending -- without prompting the meaningful K-12 reforms that might make more of your students better prepared. What would you say?

A: A couple of points. Much of the mockery in the book is directed at myself. I mock neither the colleges nor the students. The students are trying, though some are in over their heads, and the colleges -- well, the college environment is a pretty nice one. Those who work there seem to be in a perpetual good mood. Why wouldn’t they be? That’s one of the problems, really; college life is so marvelous that Americans are reluctant to deny its pleasures to anyone. The problem is that it costs too much, and many students, overwhelmed by the frankly unexpected demands of higher education, can’t complete the program.

I’m not sure that it’s practical, possible or even desirable to reform K-12 to prepare more students for college. I do think we need to rethink exactly who needs to go to college. The college experience may be wonderful to some, but if you’re failing your courses, it can be nothing short of torturous.

I think the phrase "outside world" is telling. Academics who think in those terms inhabit some nostalgic college idyll. Colleges aren’t sequestered places of intellectual pursuit anymore. They’re very much in the world. Everybody is told they should go, and mostly everybody goes, for at least a little while. Stories about college, about admission, grades, tuition, rankings, student loans and infrastructure expansion are all over the news. People are more interested in college than ever before. They’re just looking for a little transparency. I have tried to write a lively, informative and entertaining account of some of my experiences as I wandered the halls of academe. I don’t think what I have written is particularly big news; my points about underprepared students and poor retention rates have been documented for years in the professional literature. The contents of my book will come as no surprise to many college instructors. I might think that tenured academics, who owe their tenure to ideas of intellectual freedom of expression, would applaud my book for bringing the discussion to the forefront. Ideas can’t hurt us, can they?


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