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Friday, March 18, 2011

What Horrors Lurk in the Dark, Dank Cellar?

I’ve been on a reading rampage this week. Having started one book after another until I had four in progress, I finally finished one on Monday, another on Wednesday, and two more between last night and this morning. (Sometimes insomnia, which does not plague me often, helps me get my reading done.) Today I want to back to the third from the end of my “Books Read” list to talk a bit about In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.

“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!


Gerry said...

Excellent rant, this bit: "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 could not agree more.

Having said that, there is a place for rigorous teaching of subjects in which students are notoriously uninterested, and that place is in K-12 education, which we have well and truly messed up.

My rant, if I were up to ranting one this morning, would go something like, "So long as we insist on measuring everything under the sun--and the sun itself--in terms of dollars and ROI, our culture and our nation will continue to slide downhill."

P. J. Grath said...

I agree on the importance of K-12 and on the idiocy of measuring everything in terms of dollars and cents. Over the proscenium arch of my high school (forgive me if I'm repeating myself) were carved these words of Diogenes: "The foundation of every state is the education of its youth." When parents only care about good schools for their own children (to give them an advantage in the marketplace) without caring for a sound foundational education for all, they seem to believe their children have good lives in a bad world. I doubt it.

Ben Wetherbee said...

I’ll weigh in on the “writing is bad these days” complaint.

If you read histories of academic writing instruction (and I have), you’ll find the grievance that “kids just can’t write these days” antedates the university as we know it. It’s always been there, and blame has fallen on (working chronologically backward) texting, the Internet, television, the movies, the cessation of required courses in Latin, newspapers—you name it. This has been the case at Harvard (where mandatory composition was first instituted to combat the evil effects of tabloid journalism) and open-access community colleges alike.

And we can valorize the classics as the gold standard of erudition and rhetoric, but those guys had the same nostalgia “for back in the day when the kids could write (or orate).” In the Orator, Cicero bemoans the state of Roman civic oratory; he says, “[T]here have been some whose speech was ornate and weighty, but also shrewd and plain. Would that we could find an example of such an orator among the Romans!” Plato, who was sort of a nutcase in more ways than one, even suggests in the Phaedrus that writing will be the end of new knowledge since it obviates the need for memory. Imagine that—nostalgia for the good old days before the awful written word took hold.

What it boils down to, I think, is that the literary elites of every era, hung up on abstractions of “good taste,” find fault in the literacies and language practices of the new generation. Yes, there are kids who struggle to write, but that’s always been the case. Writing is hard, and those of us that enjoy it are a minority. Teaching my fifth section of composition so far, I have to say that the skills I’ve encountered are nowhere near as bad as the doomsayers would have it, and the kids can cope. People will continue to struggle with the difficult and important task of writing, most will succeed well enough, and good teachers will remain vital. Also, each generation will continue to churn out its great writers. That’s how it goes.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for weighing in, Ben, and for the reality check and history lesson. Everything has always been going to the dogs, in academia as elsewhere. I appreciate hearing from you on your teaching experience, which jibes better with mine than does that of “Professor X.” What about the economics?

Here’s a thought that only occurred to me this minute: I dropped in and out of college for 20 years before completing my B.A., so I wonder how many times I was counted as a dropout. In my own good time, I finished a Ph.D., but people like me must play hell with statistics.

Ben Wetherbee said...

I don’t know as much about the economic side of the coin, but I do think it’s absurd that we’re reaching a state where everybody’s expected to go to college. It’s a sad state of affairs wherein non-academic blue-collar workers can’t make a living. Those jobs are important, and we should value them.

I also agree that our preoccupation with assessing academic successes (graduates) and failures (dropouts) is largely misguided. Who’s to say one great class can’t have a proudly positive impact on a dropout’s life, leading to job success, personal fulfillment, etc.? There’s more to education than holding a degree.

One other semi-related point I’ll speak to: I think a lot of people need to fundamentally reconsider the role of freshman composition in the academy, especially those pushing for a literary curriculum. Like you said, Pamela, except in rare settings, there won’t be much use for most people in quoting Joyce. There will, however, be daily use in understanding the rhetorical conventions behind different genres of writing (e-mails, memos, reports, etc.), adapting one’s prose style to suit these genres, and knowing how to assemble a formidable argument. The ancient Greek concept of ethos, or how one establishes good character through his/her compositions, seems especially important. Freshman composition should hit these topics hard, I think. I’m certainly okay with the integration of some literature into curricula in order to instill a wide-reaching rhetorical consciousness (that is, it’s helpful to understand what differentiates “literary” writing from other genres), but mandatory composition courses built around cultivating literary taste seem frivolous at best. And you know me – I love literature. But mandatory classes must be practical.

P. J. Grath said...

Ben, you know I’m talking about when I say “Resource Room.” It may be used differently now, but when I was tutoring up at school there were regular classes in English and math, and they were very well taught. What bothered me, though, was that the kids had not only to write about what they wanted to do in life but write “research papers” on their career choices, with footnotes in MLA style. Why? Bureaucratic answer is that the school has only one track, college prep, but that footnote stuff didn’t make sense to me. I had expected students in that room to learn how to write letters of application for jobs—practical stuff like that.

I like your ideas for freshman composition. Maybe you see it the way I do, which is that learning to write, basically, is learning to think. My way of thinking for most of my life would not have been called “analytical,” but I learned to think analytically by writing (not just reading and studying) philosophy, and that’s what I would like to see for college students. Analyzing, understanding and evaluating arguments takes a lot of work, and I do think that working hard on important tasks builds character.

P. J. Grath said...

One clarification: "Professor X" teaches two classes, composition and literature. Not all of the assignments in the composition class were based on literature.

Ben Wetherbee said...

I agree completely; you can't divorce critical thinking from good writing. I'm teaching a "Composition and Literature" class right now, which obviously differs from the first-semester "College Composition" curriculum, but since it's a mandatory freshman course I try to keep many the learning outcomes consistent between the two. Reading literature can use a great method for cultivating analytic thinking, especially when the class situates that literature in a larger cultural apparatus.

Ellen said...

Pamela, I love reading your thoughts on what you're reading, and all the comments too. Years ago I read a book I liked called IF YOU CAN TALK YOU CAN WRITE. I thought at the time that schools should consider using it, that it might spark something with students who didn't love to read and write. I thought it might help people who felt intimidated by or uninterested in writing to realize it wouldn't be impossible for them to be articulate on paper. I think a lot of people do feel intimidated by writing when they shouldn't have to.

P. J. Grath said...

Ellen, that reminds me of my mother telling me when I was young, “If you can read [which I could], you can cook.”

You’ve reminded me also of a method for having the youngest pupils in school start writing before they’re taught rules. The idea is that human beings start talking without learning rules first, generating rules (in their minds) as their proficiency in speech grows, so why not have them begin to write the same way and worry about spelling and punctuation later? Writing I’ve seen from early grade schoolers where this method is employed is much more thoughtful, more like the fearless explorations of young children’s conversations. I wonder how it would work with already writing-phobic college students. You would hope for something more than “I’m like wow” on paper. I do think I’ve read about classes run along these lines, though, and good results coming out of them.

Let me ask a direct question on the economics connection made by "Professor X." Do you think the value of higher education, like the value of housing before the bubble burst, is inflated and due to burst in its turn? This question is not just for Ellen but for everyone.