“Professor X,” as the author’s name appears on the book, protecting his anonymity, teaches as an adjunct instructor. I have done adjunct teaching, also, and “Professor X” and I have many points of agreement. On a few matters either our experiences or our opinions diverge, so I’ll get that out of the way first.
My students’ writing has never as bad as the student writing he reports, and I’d like to know why. Is my experience the anomaly here, or is his? I’ve heard horror stories from fulltime, tenured faculty, too, about whole classrooms of students who “can’t write a simple sentence.” If there are that many, if the problem is so epidemic, why were my students not this ill prepared? I’m not saying they had a deep background in the classics, but those who could not write sentences were rare. (Paragraphs, yes—they had trouble there.) The age range, economic background, educational level of parents and career aspirations (nursing, law enforcement, business) of my community college students were comparable to those of “Professor X.” And it isn’t as if I let my students slide, either. I can pick nits with the pickiest. For example, the very notion of a “desktop podium” (p. xxii) sends my mind and stomach reeling, and I want to reach for the red pencil. Podium, lectern—not the same thing! You stand on the first and rest your books and papers on the second! (Line editors, take note.) A common error—nay, epidemic—and I realize I have an irrational and exaggerated antipathy for this mistake, but it’s not entirely beside the point, my point being that I can be a stern judge of writing. Then there was this one, new to me: the use of ‘adjunct’ as a verb. I thank my lucky stars the word is not used this way in my area of the country. God forbid this catches on and becomes accepted usage! --Yes, yes, linguistic nit-picking, and that’s all I’m going to do.
“Professor X” suggests, without coming straight out and making the direct claim, that women adjuncts are easier graders than male adjuncts because they feel “maternal.” Are there statistics to back up this suggestion? My concern was not to be “easy” or to be “hard” but to let students know my grading criteria and then be fair in applying those criteria. He’s right about the hell of assigning grades. It’s the only part of teaching I hate.
Okay, those are my quibbles. In general, I liked the book as much as I expected to like it. I have never seen the original article from which this book grew, but I suspect that most of the angry responses the writer received in its wake came from the partial picture of his teaching that I’m guessing the article presented. He is forthcoming about everything except his identity (understandable), and his style is humorous and entertaining despite the seriousness of his subject. And, while he fell into teaching accidentally, out of financial desperation, he takes his part-time work seriously. In fact, it’s not too much to say that it has become his vocation, that he has “found himself” in this lowly rank of academe. His adjunct position, he comes to see, “is my world. Without English 101 and 102, I think I might well be bereft.”
The book jacket waves statistics like a flag, and that’s pretty much where the book begins, too.
Number of college students in the United States: 18,248,128
Percentage of four-year college graduates leaving with debt: 66%
Average debt: $20,000 or more
Average number of credit cards per student: 4.6
The painful fact that colleges and universities have come to be run on a business model is not news, nor is the fact that more and more fields of work are requiring college degrees that have nothing to do with the work. The degree requirement is a hurdle into the job world that gives employers a way to consider fewer applicants.
From the White House to the community college comes the message: Everyone should go to college! Think about that. If every American citizen had a B.A. tomorrow morning, what new, higher barrier would be erected to weed through job-seekers? If everyone goes to college, the value of the degree vanishes.
Incidental caveat: Another statistic from “Professor X” is that 50% of community college students drop out before their sophomore year. Well, I learned recently something about the community college “dropout” statistic. It is not unusual for people to enroll in community college to take classes they need for work, say something to do with bookkeeping or auto mechanics, with no intention of going further. When they enroll, however, they are required to state a major course of study in a program they wish to complete. Understand, this is whether or not they want to complete a program. Maybe the student needs only this one class, pays for it, learns what he or she needed to learn and leaves satisfied. That student is counted as a “dropout” and seen as a failure. The reality is that this student and his or her completion of desired class work are successes! They are simply not measured as such. And because they are counted as failures, very useful and popular community programs such as auto mechanics are being eliminated. Talk about irony--.
Higher education is a wonderful opportunity for anyone when it’s either strongly desired for itself (which sums up my reasons for studying philosophy) or seriously needed for work that person wants to do (the case with my father’s study of engineering), but having adults go into debt to study subjects that don’t interest them, at levels for which they are unprepared, because of job requirements having nothing to do with their unwilling study is a cruel hoax. I don’t need to be able to discuss Ulysses with my E.R. nurse. That would be about my last concern.
Here’s what In the Basement of the Ivory Tower does that I don’t remember another book or article doing before: it connects the problem of unprepared college students to the problem of mortgage foreclosures. Put another way, it links rising college enrollment and failure to graduate with the housing bubble and its bursting. This connection is a very important contribution to what needs to be a national discussion on higher education. “Professor X” is also able to make the connection personal. He and his wife signed a mortgage on a larger house, a home they could not afford on their income, which forced him into adjunct teaching where he encountered students convinced that only by going to college, regardless of the cost, could guarantee them a rosy, upwardly mobile future. These two features of the book, the housing-education connection and the writer’s personal experience behind the curtain of both myths, make this book unique. “Professor X” sees that he and his unprepared students are struggling together to keep their heads above water, struggling not be drowned by the unrealistic expectations that landed them in this mess.
And yet there is that matter of finding his vocation as a teacher.
How did we all get here? The classroom surroundings are familiar, even cozy: there’s a comfort to sitting in rows, and the desks wrap around the students protectively. The textbooks seem compendia of all the world’s knowledge. Who among us wouldn’t think: we can do great things in this room!