In the Basement of the Ivory Tower speaks to the murky underbelly of the college system, those students who will mostly likely not go on to be doctors, CEOs, or professors and the adjuncts who teach them. Professor X is an adjunct professor, teaching evening courses in college English and writing at a small college and local community college. His students are taking his class because it’s required for their course of study; some of them are non-traditional students, some (according to Professor X) are woefully underprepared for college work. Professor X wonders, are we selling these students a lemon, an expensive college education that they are neither prepared for, can afford, nor need?
This book is hazy with anonymity; we can’t compare Professor X’s students with other schools’ students because he won’t tell us for fear of recrimination. I wish that Professor X could have written this book without the anonymity, although I do agree, based on the criticism he received from the initial magazine article, that it is necessary. There seems to be a lot of heads-in-sand about his stance: commenters imply that he is maligning his students by failing them, that he’s not actually teaching or helping them adequately, that he doesn’t care. However, if Professor X didn’t care about his students, he wouldn’t have bothered to write In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. If anyone is in doubt as to the poor learning skills of Professor X’s students and his almost paralyzing decision to pass or fail them, just look at any Internet forum and you can see a basic lack of reading and writing skills. In my persona as a moderator of an online bookclub I am swimming in poorly written prose – both original compositions posted in the writing room and posts as part of book discussions. God forbid I should actually tell someone that his or her post is unintelligible and makes no sense (an issue completely divorced from the issue of atrocious grammar and spelling); it is apparently “mean” to criticize. There are some who probably view Professor X as “mean” because he does attempt to hew to the standards of college-level work; he doesn’t just pass them because he wants to be “nice”.
Standards are at the core of the book, that students who barely function at a level appropriate to high school, or lower, grade-levels are pushed to attend college with no thought as to the actual preparation of the students. These students need remedial course work, but receive no credit for it in their degree paths so, therefore, don’t bother nor does the college enforce this, and the connection between their career path and the college writing/literature work is tenuous at best. Adjuncts are not paid for office hours, have no place to meet with students, and often don’t have time allotted by the school to give the level of personal instruction that academically disadvantaged students need. Professor X worries, how are students with rudimentary communication skills being served by this drive to send everyone and their neighbors’ dog to college? It’s a valid worry.
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower raises many issues and we, as a country, should seriously take a look at student debt and college requirements for job placement, at the educational system as a whole from preschool through college. Where I think this book falls down is in a lack of proposed solutions, beyond revamping the American notion of success-through-college-is-the-only-way-to-go, and in the tone of the author. What is Professor X’s solution for underprepared students, beyond not forcing them to take college English? He doesn’t tell us. I really was not interested in Professor X’s anxiety about his house or his fights with his wife; those chapters detracted from his arguments about the college system. I also felt that the quibbling over grading – do students get the “F” that is deserved under the college standards or do they get bumped up to a “D” or “C” because of improvement/situation – could have done without the tone of smarmy self-assurance implied in the many chapters. There are issues barely touched on – such as the rise of blantant plagiarism and students’ seeming indifference to getting caught or the out-of-touch anthologies he is required to use as textbooks – that need more expansion. Faults aside, this book is a “whistleblower”; we need more whistleblowers and fewer heads-in-the-sand.