“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” by Professor X, is about the current state of American higher education.

May 6, 2011

Three years ago the Atlantic Monthly published an article under the byline “Professor X,” in which the pseudonymous author lamented the widespread assumption that every American should aspire to a college education. He (the pronoun used on the dust jacket) taught and still teaches adult night classes in writing and literature at a community college and a small private college. He argued that most of the students under his tutelage were there not out of a genuine desire to learn at a college level but because some degree of “higher” education is often required of people seeking jobs — highway patrolman, nurse, fireman — for which a liberal arts college education is unnecessary.

The article provoked a modest amount of controversy, much of it stirred by readers who felt that the author was either an intellectual elitist or an incompetent teacher, or both. It also prompted Viking to sign him on for a book-length expansion of his story, which is before us now. As one who is sympathetic to the author’s argument that there are many entirely honorable and important lines of work for which college education is not merely unnecessary but expensive and time-consuming, I only wish he had made a better book out of it. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” is little more than proof that not all magazine articles make good books, or for that matter that not all magazine articles need to be longer than they already are.

Professor X — the pseudonym is not without irony, given that he tells his students he is an instructor, not a full professor — describes himself as a middle-aged government worker, married with children, who dug himself into a financial hole with the purchase of a house he could not afford. In order to help pay the freight, he got work as an instructor, first at “a small private college, which I will call Pembrook College,” and then at “a two-year community college, which I will call Huron State.” The location of these institutions is disguised, but their situation, and the author’s, will be all too familiar to anyone familiar with the current state of American higher education:

“Both were desperate for adjuncts, the low-cost part-timers who work without benefits and make up a growing percentage of many college faculties. Never had I imagined that this would be my destiny, to put in a full eight-hour workday and then drive wearily to teach night classes at a bottom-tier institution. While a large part of the world watches ‘American Idol,’ I rattle on about Kafka and Joyce and Gwendolyn Brooks to a classroom of reluctant students. Some are wide-eyed and fidgety with fatigue. I teach expository writing, trying to wring college-level prose from students whose skills may just graze the lower reaches of high school. We assemble and disassemble paragraphs. We hack out useless words — a painful step, that one, for we sometimes find ourselves left with nothing.”

As that passage suggests, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” is an indictment of American education at two levels: the high schools, for processing students who too often leave, diplomas in hand, with little better than ninth-grade educations, and the colleges, for the institutional greed that inspires them to matriculate ever more marginally qualified students while educating them on the cheap with part-time instructors of wildly varying competence. When Professor X signed on with Pembrook College, he became a member “of what academic theorists call the ‘instructorate,’ as opposed to the ‘professoriate,’ which enjoys health care and retirement benefits and where anybody with any sense would rather be,” the former being a group, in the words of a former adjunct, “widely regarded as the great academic unwashed, the grunts, pieceworkers subject to — and even produced by — the crass economic pressures of the academic marketplace. To most of higher education’s regular citizens, part-time instructors are an embarrassment.”

Professor X is at pains to suggest, through describing how he teaches and how he deals with his students, that adjuncts are entirely capable of doing good work, and of course he is right. There is nothing wrong per se with being a part-time, untenured academician, and the snobbery of the safely tenured toward those perceived as unworthy interlopers is distasteful, to put it mildly. The mass hiring of adjuncts, however, is all the proof one needs that higher education is trying to meet the needs of the students about whom it cares least — undergraduates and part-time adults — on the cheap, reserving the big bucks for the tenured faculty, the burgeoning administrative fiefdoms and the revenue-producing research endeavors.

Professor X is right to say that the “push for universal college enrollment, which at first glance seems emblematic of American opportunity and class mobility, is in fact hurting those whom it is meant to help.” He continues: “Students are leaving two- and four-year colleges with enormous amounts of debt. The latest figures, from 2007-8, put the percentage of four-year graduates leaving college with debt at 66 percent. The top 10 percent of those owe $44,500 or more; 50 percent owe at least $20,000. Lower-income students at least have part of their tab picked up by the taxpayer through such programs as the federal Pell Grant, but for those of my students who want to become state troopers or firemen, the unnecessary cost and the inefficiency of the whole process is staggering.”

The author came to like many of his students and in some cases to admire them, and to sympathize with them no matter how mediocre — or far worse — the assignments they handed in. “Many of those I teach have done poorly in high school,” he writes; “college is not a goal for which they prepared single-mindedly for eighteen years. College is a place they landed in. I teach those whose names don’t come up in the debates about advanced placement courses, adolescent over-achievers, and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose high school transcripts show poor attendance, indifferent grades, and blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. But now, shanghaied into college classes because of the demands of the workplace, they have seen the light — in a panicky sort of way. They want to do well. I want them to do well, and I teach subjects about which I am crazily passionate.”

This is where things start to get sticky. So long as Professor X sticks to what is represented as the main business of “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” — people who shouldn’t be required to take college courses and the colleges that exploit them — he is on reasonably firm ground, but he insists on bringing himself into the story over and over again in ways that are not as attractive as he obviously fancies them to be. Probably it is true that “I was a classic adjunct type with a master’s degree, a failed artistic career, and a need for cash,” but that isn’t pertinent to the business at hand, and it’s no more so when in effect he repeats himself some 60 pages later: “I was a failed artist, a mute inglorious pundit, the author of one unpublished and several abandoned novels.”

Nor is it of any real pertinence that “I enjoy nothing more than trying to convey to a class something of my passion for a great short story, or the satisfaction a writer can feel upon nailing a point with a phrase that tells.” The reader — this reader, in any case — simply isn’t interested in the details of the rather foolish real-estate investment that brought the author into the classroom, or the tensions between him and his wife that straitened economic circumstances brought about. Whether all this effluvium is self-indulgence or merely padding is difficult to discern — I suspect a combination of the two — but it is gratuitous and, like the classes to which his students are subjected, unnecessary.

IN THE BASEMENT OF THE IVORY TOWER

Confessions of an Accidental Academic

By Professor X

Viking. 258 pp. $25.95

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