Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: In The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X

I did not approach this book with an unbiased mind. Having read a few of the articles that sparked its creation, I was well aware (perhaps too aware) that my philosophy on teaching so dramatically differs from Professor X’s as to make it somewhat difficult for me to understand him, as if he is speaking a language I do not.

But I read it anyway because I think there's an important conversation taking place, and I tried to look at it through different lenses as I went. The result, unsurprisingly I suppose, is still a critical view. But I will say that that the writing is sharp, and there were times when I saw Professor X as something other than the cold, whiny teacher who does not like teaching that the Atlantic Monthly article series had left me picturing.

In particular, chapter 9, “The Pain,” details Professor X’s tortured relationship with his students and his own role as teacher. He says, “The students and I seldom complete the transaction, seemingly so fundamental, of my teaching and their learning.” In this chapter, his voice is of someone with good intentions and a recognition that getting to the desired outcome takes some struggle. He illustrates his torment over giving grades and the sense of community he shares with his students. There are hints to a looming problem, however, when he admits that the basis of that community is one of failure: “Our presence in these evening classes is evidence that something in our lives has gone awry. In one way or another, we have all screwed up.”

And that’s my first problem with Professor X’s philosophy, one that seeps through every other observation he makes: he sees his students as screw-ups. From day one. Before he reads a word they’ve written. Perhaps even worse, he sees himself as a screw-up for being desperate enough to take an adjunct position that places him in front of them. He assumes they see themselves the same way, and I’m sure that his attitude goes a long way towards ensuring that kind of low self-image. My teaching philosophy is built around respect, and Professor X doesn’t seem to have any for himself, let alone his students. At times, it feels like he’s using his position as an adjunct instructor in lieu of some much-needed therapy. He recounts tense moments in his marriage, his underwater mortgage, and failing to reach his dreams as a writer throughout the book. These moments are honest and often very well-written, but they are a disturbing glimpse into the relationship this instructor has with teaching.

And what of that failed writing career? This book is evidence that it has not entirely failed. Though writing under a pseudonym, Professor X is, in fact, a published writer that actual human beings (quite a few of them) will read. At times, he seems aware of this, writing “I present myself to the class less as a writing instructor than as a writer.” He uses this understanding as an underpinning for lessons based on workshop-style editing and modeled behavior. But in the previous chapter, mere pages before that, he admits that he sees himself as a failed writer: “It was only when I abandoned the dreams that I felt the gnawing, the nothingness, that I tried to fill with a house.”

So he views himself as a failed writer, models his writing for his students, and then gets frustrated when they fail.

What Professor X views (and has been marketed as) as a diatribe on the flailing higher education system in America reads more to me like the examination of the self-fulfilling prophesy that results from one man’s attempts to work his neuroses out on his students.

Though, to be fair, there is some of that hinted-at diatribe lurking--mostly in the last chapter. Here, Professor X says that we are failing students by adjusting our culture to say everyone who graduates high school is college material. He says, “We have to adjust our thinking, and reject our sense of the primacy of the bachelor’s and even the associate’s degree. The old model of the vocational school is not a bad one.”

And I think he’s getting at a very real problem. Our educational methods do not match our new cultural norm. We have not implemented the means to help all of the students we accept into college succeed.

But Professor X’s admonishment of the democratic, open-admission approach to education reminded me very much of this Chronicle of Higher Education article about the same topic: “Are Too Many Students Going to College?

It’s a discussion-based pieced that has multiple voices, but the overwhelming answer seems to be “yes.” And I admit they bring up good points --there are more college graduates than there are college-level jobs, there are students going to college that don’t have the work ethic to complete degrees, etc. But what I can’t shake from either the article or Professor X’s view is the elitism and privilege that seem to be coating their words.

One of the writers in the Chronicle article (Marty Nemko, a career counselor) said this about increasing college enrollment:
“That results in ever more unemployed and underemployed B.A.'s. Meanwhile, there's a shortage of tradespeople to take the Obama infrastructure-rebuilding jobs. And you and I have a hard time getting a reliable plumber even if we're willing to pay $80 an hour—more than many professors make.”

Okay, so maybe more people should be plumbers. Maybe some people are better suited to be plumbers. Maybe they’ve got a knack for working with their hands, and maybe they really like getting out and about and working in a different setting everyday. Plus, plumbers are really important. As someone whose kitchen ceiling collapsed due to a bad plumbing experience, I can say with conviction that I think trained, talented plumbers make important contributions to society. These are great reasons to be a plumber. But what I never hear, what I never see suggested is that some of these academics’ own sons and daughters might be better off being plumbers. It always some other people somewhere that should stop applying to college. Their own kids? They’re college material by birth.

Perhaps Professor X reveals more than he thinks when, lamenting the socially and culturally loaded themes of some of the anthologized short stories, he says “I don’t want to talk about race and I don’t want to talk about social class, either.”

But we have to talk about that if we’re going to have an honest conversation about the problem of the “education bubble.”

Expanding the education field means expanding it beyond the privileged wealthy students who traditionally have attended. That means race and class are at the heart of the issue. And if students, through no fault of their own, received sub-par elementary and secondary education because of their social status, we can hardly call ourselves a society of equality if we then tell those students (and ourselves) that they’re just not “college material.”

We have to talk about the whole host of -isms (racism, classism, sexism, ageism) that underpin our drive to keep college enrollment selective. And until we can have an honest discussion about that, Professor X’s observations will continue to ring short-sighted and self-centered.

All that said, this book was a well-written piece that touched on many issues in education, and I think that reading it can help focus some attention on the spaces Professor X has left untouched, the things he's left unsaid.

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