In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic

  • Professor X
  • Viking
  • 288 pp.

From the trenches, a bleak assessment of America’s attempt to provide higher education for all.

Reviewed by Ann H. Franke

Do not look here for a memoir affirming the joys of college teaching. Any nonfiction offered by an anonymous author — here, taking the oh-so-modern nom de plume Professor X — is out to gore some oxen. The author is a foot soldier in the vast army of adjunct college instructors. English is one academic discipline rife with adjuncts. Do colleges and universities treat them fairly? Is higher education risking its quality by relying on casual labor? These are important social questions the author chooses not to address.

Our hero’s main target is America’s enthusiasm for universal higher education. Students enrolled in his evening introductory writing and literature classes are woefully unprepared. The young ones are a little lazy, and the older ones seek credentials for advancement in their jobs. They write atrociously and have virtually no past experience with books. College administrators also take some hits.

Professor X, who holds a full-time government job, moonlights as a college English instructor because of a too-big mortgage on a too-big family house. He finds common cause with his students, observing that they come together in their evening classes because “in one way or another, we have all screwed up.” In the author’s case, the screw-up was the mortgage. The students’ errors are more varied. One recital of their shortcomings covers “indolence, despair, fear of failure, fear of success, lack of foundational skills, lack of time, lack of aptitude, the allure of Internet surfing [and] lack of sustained interest.”

Professor X complains that teaching is hard. Grading is worse — gut-wrenching and distasteful. The required textbooks are lame; ditto the pedagogy of teaching English. The heart of the matter is America’s enthusiasm for sending high school graduates to college without regard to their prospects for success. Professor X sees few of his students as real college material, and he grades accordingly. Administrators, he feels, avoid the painful question of whether their institutions admit unqualified students. His scattershot complaints offer little enlightenment, merely reminding the reader of life’s difficulties.

Occasionally, though, learning occurs. In one class a student, with all eyes on him, writhes in his seat and finally manages to begin editing a sentence he has written. Eureka! Professor X offers a range of judgments about his own capabilities. In one section he ranks himself as neither the world’s best teacher nor its worst. In another, he concedes he is not particularly successful as a writing instructor. Elsewhere he declares great faith in his teaching methods. Nowhere does X seek to probe or reconcile these superficial pronouncements. He is, at least, a teacher who can learn from disaster. Never again will he select for editing by the entire class an adult student’s essay about the protracted death of her child from leukemia.

While negativity about students, administrators, and higher education runs deep in this memoir, it is not unrelenting. Yet one chapter cheerfully titled “The Good Stuff” takes up only eight of the book’s 200-plus pages. Sprinkled throughout the volume are some fine, yet brief, descriptions of the writing process. Professor X declares his rapturous love of literature. Teaching Flannery O’Connor brings him great joy. Later, toward the book’s end, he concludes that teaching writing and literature is what he was put on earth to do. The second job, which he initially pursued for its modest financial return, has over the years become his life. Perhaps because the author moonlights in the academy, he shows no interest in issues such as academic freedom and health benefits that are of vital concern to many part-time instructors.

The prose is clear, although sometimes overblown, and many of the anecdotes about marginal students are eye-opening. Still, the book, expanded from an essay published in The Atlantic, feels incomplete. A missing element is insight into Professor X’s personal journey. Adjuncts across the country may find accurate depictions of their own classrooms. They will be unlikely, however, to find much inspiration or positive guidance. How did the author move from complaining about lousy students and lame textbooks to finding deep satisfaction? The reader remains in the dark.

Professor X suggests that too many jobs unnecessarily require a college degree. He offers little guidance on how to ameliorate the problems of ill-prepared students and low graduation rates, particularly at community colleges. He does, though, concede a personal benefit from robust college enrollments, even of unprepared students: Encouraging all Americans to attend college means full employment for him. He will appreciate that, and we hope his students will as well. As for his own writing, X might usefully concentrate in the future on magazine-length rather than book-length projects.

Ann H. Franke, a lawyer who specializes in higher education, works with colleges and universities around the country on policy, risk management and employment issues. She contributes to publications such as Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, and as a Fulbright scholar she studied the development of private universities in Australia.

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