Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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The Lower Depths

Professor X, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower (Viking, 2011).

Every year at this time, around the beginning of the “teaching season” (which more or less coincides with the opening of the football and hockey seasons), I sit down and read the current buzz-generating book about education. Okay, sometimes the book isn’t generating much buzz and is written in plodding academic prose, but I read it anyway. It’s my way of annually re-thinking what I think about education before I walk into a classroom right after Labour Day and start teaching. This year’s book is the pseudonymous Professor X’s In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, a lively if despairing account of teaching and learning in the Gorkyan lower depths of the North American post-secondary education system. Its prose is neither sluggish nor obscure, and the book is definitely generating some buzz because it challenges a prominent shibboleth of the American Dream, namely, that “college is for everyone.”

Although the author maintains his anonymity (mainly, he says, because he doesn’t want to get fired from his part-time teaching job), we learn quite a bit about Professor X in the course of his tale. He’s middle-aged (early 50s), lives in the exurbs somewhere on the U.S. east coast, married with kids, has a full-time not very exciting day job somewhere in government and, on top of all that, teaches English composition and literature a couple of nights a week as a part-time “adjunct” college instructor. Prof X, who once aspired to a literary career, accidentally fell into teaching as a result of a disastrous home ownership decision he made early in the previous decade that left him with more mortgage than money to pay for it. He may resemble the description he offers of the stereotypical part-time instructor: “mild mannered, we adjunct professors, in our eyeglasses and our corduroy jackets, our bald heads and trimmed beards.”

Portrait of the adjunct prof as a middle-aged drudge apart, he sees his cog-like function in the post-secondary education system as carrying out “the dirty work that no one else wants to do, the wrenching, draining, sorrowful business of teaching and failing the unprepared who often don’t even know they are unprepared.” I’ll come back to those “unprepared” students in a moment.

The first thing to say about Prof X’s book, which grew out of a hot-button-pushing essay in Atlantic magazine a couple of years ago, is that despite its grim news it’s a thoroughly fun read. Anyone who’s ever worked even briefly inside a classroom will recognize the accuracy of Prof X’s vignettes of teaching, his encounters with students, and his pondering of the mysteries of reading and writing. Those who haven’t taught will learn something interesting about contemporary education in this frontline report from the ivory tower, or at least its basement. On its journey from magazine article to book, as critic Dwight Garner notes, “It’s morphed into something new. The author hasn’t greatly expanded his argument, but he’s turned the book into more of a memoir. It’s a sad, haunted tale that zeroes in on all the things that send people into therapy (or memoir writing): money, class, failure and real estate.” (Dwight Garner, “An Academic Hit Man Brings More Bad News,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 2011.)

I like the book better than the headline-grabbing original essay. The book version is ruminative, and provides a deeper and more humane picture of both the melancholy narrator and the classrooms he inhabits. Despite his laments about his thwarted literary ambitions and failed novels, Prof X writes pretty good prose. I prefer the nuts and bolts chapters – those where he tries to explain to students what writing is about, or imagines the lonely blue glow of a nighttime classroom window seen from the highway, or wrestles with the temptations of “grade inflation” in a culture that is reluctant to admit that one student may be better than another – to the passages where he’s making his case. The “sad, haunted tale” rings truer than the argument about what to do with college education.

Still, much of the book’s polemics are also accurate. Prof X’s theme about the plight of adjunct part-time teachers is right on the mark. The practice of using adjuncts is now ubiquitous in American education. The adjuncts are woefully underpaid, have almost no benefits, and tend to be isolated from their teaching peers. The situation is not only grossly unfair to them, but also to their students who should be instructed by teachers who have a clear contractual commitment to the institution. At the university where I teach, a strong faculty union successfully argued for the prompt “regularization” of teachers once they get beyond the initial “probationary” stage, and adjunct teaching has been kept to a minimum. Avoiding a situation where lots of adjuncts are doing all the donkey work clearly makes for a more cohesive institution, as well as improving team morale.

Prof X is also largely right about the plight of the students. Too many of them end up with enormous educational debts that they’re going to have difficulty paying off, and the situation has only gotten worse in the last decade, as universities and colleges jacked up tuition fees while cash-strapped state governments in the U.S. reduced college funding. Fees currently run from $10,000 a year-and-rising at state universities to over $50,000 annually at the “prestige” schools. (They’re slightly lower in Canada, but only slightly.) It’s also the case that significant percentages of entering college students – who have bought into the drumbeat message that everyone must go to college – don’t complete a degree or certificate. In some ways, they’re the victims of false advertising, but the problem of who should be in university and for what purposes runs much deeper than that.

At this point Prof X turns to the argument that not everybody belongs in college. The components of the case for shrinking university and college enrollments include the claim that a) many students are in various ways “unprepared” to do university level work, and b) in any case, given the jobs they’re trying to get, they don’t need to learn the things Prof X and his colleagues are trying to teach them. Finally, c) the suggestion is that these students would be better off with simple, straightforward vocational training. Usually this line of thinking is associated with various rightwing thinkers and publicists (in Canada, for example, this is the argument made by conservative Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente).

But Prof X isn’t, as far as I can tell, a right-winger, nor is he an ideologue of the Margaret Wente type. Rather, he’s simply a beleagured guy who, it turns out, loves teaching, and is facing a bewildering situation. If the colleges where he teaches follow his advice and bar the door to unprepared and unlikely-to-ever-be-prepared students, he’ll be out of a job. If  they keep admitting warm bodies for a variety of bad (and occasional good) reasons, Prof X is doomed to a Sisyphus-like eternity where he’s forever reading student essays in which “the more complex skills, the synthesis of arguments and the development of a thesis, are simply beyond some of my students at this stage of their academic development. Some are poor readers. Some cannot read a journal article – or even a People article – and summarize the author’s stance. An alarming number of my students have trouble Finding the Main Idea.” What’s more, as Prof X notes in a chapter about “remediation,” or teaching students what they should have learned years ago, not all the ivory tower’s teachers or all its power point presentations can bring such students back up to speed.

So, from Prof X’s point of view at the bottom of the heap, the only thing to do, if we’re to be honest about it, is to let a lot of potential students know that college is not for them, but, hey, we’ve got a nice practical vocational program available here that will let them become welders, or dental assistants, or sheriff’s clerks. Professor X’s Basement is mercifully free of high falutin’ theorizing about education and society. But maybe it’s a bit too estranged from the bigger picture. Drum-roll and a very small amount of bigger picture theorizing to follow:

First, I’d ask a practical question. Just what percentage of students are we wringing our hands about here? Prof X is talking about students who are clearly failing or about to go under for the third time. I’ve been teaching first and second year university students for many years (admittedly, as a full-time faculty member teaching mostly in daylight) and I haven’t met a lot of the kind of students who constitute the majority of Prof X’s classes. Maybe five per cent of my students fit Professor X’s description. My students may not be geniuses, but they’re able to write average-to-good essays a lot of the time, and university seems to be the right place at the right time for most of them. I don’t want to overdo this contrast-and-compare between Prof X’s students and mine, but the difference is real, so the bigger picture may not be as grim as it appears from his sub-basement. That’s the sliver of good news.

Prof X doesn’t have a lot of time, given his situation, to muse about what colleges and universities are for, and who should be in them. So, I’m not blaming him for offering no more than a passing glance at other possibilities. I’m blaming the people who have turned post-secondary institutions into mere job-training factories in the last 30 years. They’ve been so successful in promoting colleges as purely high-class vocational schools (with lots of rhetoric about Information Technology, “excellence,” and “knowledge-based” societies) that they’ve almost made the citizenry forget that schools could be something other than factories.

It’s possible to imagine and want a society that helps create active citizens, fosters the development of cultured people, and encourages critical thinking. Colleges and universities should be among the institutions that have such a mission at their core, and not solely a jobs training purpose. Given the cultural context in which we live (a baffling array of shiny ramped-up tech devices and dumbed-down content that most people access on those gadgets) we’ve almost forgotten that full-fledged citizens, cultured human beings, and critical thinkers are even desirable figures in our picture of democratic societies. I won’t ramble on about this “bigger picture” because it’s such a long story that it’s better to make it short, given today’s truncated attention spans.

A second practical question, even if we aspire to universities for citizens, culture and thought (as well as professional training for occupations), is, What percentage of the population in a democratic society do we want educated? The right-wing college-is-not-for-everyone crowd loudly bemoans the wildly increasing numbers of students at the gates. It’s true that there has been educational democratization since the end of World War II. When I went to university in British Columbia in the ‘60s, only 7 per cent of 18-24-year-olds attended post secondary institutions. A half-century later, the figure is about 25 per cent (although if you add in various training and vocational post-sec programs, the number moves up to 35-40 per cent). The point is, however, that only 1 out of 4 18-to-24-year-olds is in university and 3 out of 4 are not. The defenders of educational elitism in democratic societies need not fear that the educated class will be much more than an elite anytime in the near future. Further, given that arts and science students are less than 10 per cent of the student body these days (the largest group of students is in business training) that means that among the 25 per cent in university, only a small minority of that number is obtaining a general education that resembles the picture of citizens and cultured adults I’ve sketched. Thus, I’m less enthused than some others about telling young people that college isn’t for them.

I’m probably as gloomy about the big picture as Prof X is about his lonely evening classes. It’s true that serious book reading is in decline, or as Prof X puts it, “For my students, reading is just another thing that they happen not to be into, the way some people aren’t into scrapbooking or Pilates or watching Lost.” It’s also true that fewer young people than 25 years ago are aware of being citizens or interested in culture, and that little in present capitalist entertainment encourages them to think otherwise. Although I fear we’re losing the battle, the college classroom remains one of the redoubts of resistance to ignorance and social amnesia. Once the teaching season got underway this year, I was among the happy few ready to take the field. As for Professor X, our underground man, his engaging Basement book gets better than a passing grade, and its sales are no doubt helping to pay off his burdensome mortgage.  


Vancouver, September 9, 2011

Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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