Saturday, February 4, 2012

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X

All right. Time to catch up on some book reviews. this was the second book I read in January and one I had wanted to read after reading this review in The Millions last year (and I will be reviewing the other book in the review shortly as well). The author, maintaining his anonymity by using the pseudonym Professor X, is an adjunct English instructor at both a private college and a community college. He writes about the sorry condition of colleges today, the symptoms, and some of the causes.

Over the years Professor X has found that a good number of students attending college really don't have the skills to be there. Especially in the community college setting, where many of the students are older than normal college age and are attending solely to improve their job standings, he sees students that have no idea how to write coherently and/or do research.

Professor X cites the pressure to sustain the myth that everyone should attend college as the primary problem. Colleges, of course, aren't going to fight that perception since more students means more income. So more and more students are admitted without having the necessary skill set to succeed.

Sadly no one, according to Professor X, really cares if the students do succeed. Especially for part-time students, failure means having to take the class again which again means more profit for the school. Professor X spends a good amount of time talking about his struggles with grading and failing students. He rarely encounters work that merits an A and has no problem failing students. He doesn't believe (rightly so, in my opinion) in promoting mediocrity but still realizes that his students are people with dreams and who may be trying hard but lack the ability to succeed.

Interestingly, while I was reading this, I was also serving as a judge for a scholastic writing competition where I judged high school students' entries in short stories and journalism. While I was aghast at Professor X's assertions about the caliber of work in colleges, I witnessed some of the same myself. This was a writing competition. The kids who entered this are those who either enjoy or think they are good at writing. The writing should have been a decent caliber just due to self-selection. Yet I would say only 40% of the journalism entries and probably less than 15% of the short stories were what I would call better than average writing. Worse, we were encouraged to not hold students to a high standard in technical competence, focusing instead on originality and voice. In other words, promote mediocrity as long as it entertains.

I'm no F. Scott Fitzhemingway. I'm casting stones, but I am not without sin. But I am not Professor X, either. I am not on the front lines, with the capability of making things better by providing instruction to these students. Professor X argues that he does not have the time over the course of the semester to provide the level of instruction to get the students to be mediocre. He also feels that it is too late by the time students reach college. They need to have better instruction before they even get to college.

I have to agree and this is where I feel our government does a disservice by cutting funding to schools and libraries. I also feel that society as a whole is promoting bad habits as more and more people turn to texting, Tweeting and using Wikipedia as their sole source of research. Rly? U thnk this mite b prt of prob?

Returning to the actual book review, Professor X also cites the use of adjunct instructors as part of the problem. Adjuncts are paid by the class. They cannot earn tenure. They're part-time workers. Most don't have offices or office hours. They are to professors what most of the students X cites are to, well, college students. They use the same buildings, they teach and study the same subjects, but they're not the same at all.

This was a tough month for me with reading. A lot of the books I read, including this one, weren't clearly in one of my rating zones. The book had a lot of merit. But Professor X plays the martyr a lot, writing a lot about his own life and how he turned to teaching because he overreached when he and his wife were pursuing the American Dream and buying a house and then needed more money. As I said he doesn't feel like he can make much of a difference which I found frustrating. And for being an English professor, I didn't think he was that good of a writer himself. So because of that I rated it zero stars despite subject matter I found interesting.

1 comment:

jtorrey13 said...

I'm interested to hear more about your judging experience.