April 07, 2011


In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic. By Professor X. Viking. $25.95.

     A little too full of himself and a little too enamored of his own cleverness (even to the “Professor X” pseudonym), the author of this most recent critique of higher education is shocked, shocked, to learn, when he becomes an adjunct at a small private college and a community college, that the students are not at the very highest levels and that the college system itself is deeply flawed. This revelation is comparable to the one in which he is shocked, shocked, to find out that he cannot afford the overlarge and over-expensive house he has bought – a state of affairs that brings him to adjunct teaching in the first place.

     Readers will likely not be shocked, much less shocked, when Professor X explains that the first essays he received in English 101 (“Introduction to College Writing”) were really, really bad. It would have been nice if Professor X had shared some examples of how bad they were, but he declines to offer anything beyond his own remarks: “The essays were terrible, but ‘terrible’ doesn’t begin to convey the state these things were in. My God. Out of about fifteen students, at least ten seemed to have no familiarity with the English language. …I could quote broken sentences all day, but I won’t.” Too bad he doesn’t, because instead he decides to show his own erudition (or pseudo-erudition) through false modesty: “Perhaps, dear reader, you think the main issue is the arrogance and superiority [sic – not “alleged superiority”] of the aforementioned teacher rather than any problem with the students. Perhaps you think of me as Guy Crouchback, the protagonist of Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms, who during World War II censors letters…” Uh, well, no, the comparison probably never occurs to the reader, but Professor X wants it to, so he pulls it out of nowhere so he can then claim the moral, or at least intellectual, high ground. This is distinctly unappealing, and is by no means the only instance of this sort of thing.

     If Professor X did not write so entertainingly (when not involved in self-aggrandizement and the creation of self-important phraseology about misspellings “chasing one another around in a fugal counterpoint of inaccuracy”) and if he did not have some legitimate and even important points to make, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower would be easy to dismiss. But he does, and it isn’t. For example, he explains that grade inflation, so easy to condemn, is not as simple as it appears: “My students…are up against it. The clock is ticking. The pressure is on. They need, desperately, to get through their programs. …When I give a failing grade to a student, I am not just passing judgment on some abstract intellectual exercise. I am impeding that student’s progress, thwarting his ambition, keeping him down, committing the universal crime of messing with his livelihood – not to mention forcing him to pay the tuition charge all over again. …[A]ny poor grade I issue may mean disastrous economic consequences.” For another example, he discusses trendy teaching methods that denigrate such “old-fashioned” ideas as emphasizing the right answers (“Who in God’s name ever thought that would be any good?” asks Professor X with a dose of his typical sarcasm) – and he remarks, “I’ve never heard of any other professors, adjunct or tenured, who actually do any of this [trendy, ‘wait on the students’] stuff.”

     Professor X also gets into issues of college financing, the college “industry,” and the various groups with different but related stakes in higher education, and he does it all while occasionally turning out a genuinely creative metaphor: “We writing teachers could do a lot worse than to start turning out classes of skilled syntax mechanics, their hands soiled with the filth of discarded adjectives and the grease of potent verbs.” Behind the entertaining writing, behind the sometimes desperate attempts to show how much he and his teachings matter, Professor X is onto something when he ferrets out the minuses of the educational system (many of them already well known) and contrasts them with the pluses, including those he himself experiences (such as his discovery that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is not, after all, a terrible poet). Not an advocacy book but a memoir steeped in wished-for self-importance, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower offers enough behind-the-scenes looks at adjunct teaching and the students who encounter (or endure) it to make a reader question the current university model as higher education lurches uneasily from being the province of the elite toward the imagined utopia in which everyone is above average and, while all are created equal, some are not more equal than others. Those are two literary references. Looking them up is left to the reader as an exercise.

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