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In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, Professor X

2011/05/22

Along the same lines as the last book I reviewed, this one addresses the lack of proper preparation and skills in regards to college-level education. A memoir of an adjunct English professor, this is also a critique of higher education and the contemporary expectation that every American is entitled to a college education.

The Professor (anonymous, as he still teaches, and technically not a professor), found himself adjunct teaching as a result of a heavy mortgage. After a cursory application process and interview, he finds himself an adjunct instructor, and quickly learns that he and his colleagues are considered the very bottom of the totem pole, among those who dilute pure academia, untrained for professorship and called upon to teach the remedial and developmental classes that full-time faculty do not deign to teach. As he prepares for and embarks upon the first teaching session, Professor X is full of excitement and ready to mold young lives, inspiring them to write and preparing them for future endeavors. And then he receives the first assignment for grading; absolutely stunned at how terrible they are, the lack of sentence structure, the creative spellings, the fragments and run-ons and incoherent thought filling the pages to the required word count. As his teaching adventure continues, he conducts writing workshops, encounters blatant plagiarism, struggles with defining the proper value of letter grades, questions the value of education for all, considers the role of remedial classes and their effectiveness, and generally attempts to give his students some sort of useful and practical guidance in their writing.

As a member of a community college library staff, it is not part of my duties to assist students in composition, proofreading, or other basics of writing — these are the tasks of the English department and the writing center; however, I still see students’ work and assignments as they come to the library to do research, print papers, and ask for technical assistance with their formatting or citations. And I too have been astounded at many of the same issues Professor X raises — the lack of basic grammar and composition skills, absence of critical thinking, mis-spellings, as well as students deluded about their level of accomplishment. I have also seen students trying valiantly to understand what their teachers are attempting to convey, desperately seeking help with their syntax or sentence structure, shamefacedly laughing at their lack of skills in formatting or technology.

The book does begin to ramble a bit at the end, and some sections are repetitive, with the author continually hammering at a few favorite points. Still, for those who may be oblivious to the current state of affairs in the academic realm, or who want a glimpse into what is really happening in remedial and general education classes, this will be sometimes shocking and hopefully, a thought-provoking read.

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