Friday, January 15, 2016

Professor X, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower"

 – Viking Penguin 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-02256-4

Read from: December 1st 2015 till January 14th 2016

My rating:

The Elitism of Learning

When I left Romania, about eleven years ago, I decided to give up on teaching as well. After sixteen years of doing only this, it was not an easy decision to make, but I was so fed up with the corrupt system I was leaving behind that I had lost all faith in the generosity of my profession.

Of course, once a teacher always a teacher and although I’ve generally stuck to my decision and now I’m working full time in an office (finding my work interesting and challenging enough even after a decade or so) I couldn’t sever all the ties, so not only I have been teaching part time in various private language schools, but I’ve also shared my knowledge with my friends and my friends’ children whenever they needed to improve their French, English or even Italian skills. And, as a funny parenthesis, even today I say sometimes that I’m going to school instead of the office and now and then I dream I’m in front of a class again. Moreover, I asked for and obtained my teaching permit six years ago (I don’t know whether as a sort of back-up or simply because I am still a teacher at heart) and in order to renew it I followed five courses (3 credits each) last year, which made me better acquainted with the educational system here in Québec – and this is where I wanted to get, really, in order to discuss Professor X’s book, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.

I have to say that although my knowledge about the American schooling is somehow empirical, I’m aware of some affinities with Quebec educational system, especially concerning the pedagogic approaches, such as the wish to eliminate the effort of learning to make school accessible to everybody and the intention to replace the magister-teacher with the coach-teacher on the idea that learning is not, or should not be, one-directional, but reciprocal.  And these are the two matters I focused on while reading the essay – not only because I am not very familiar with the other ones Professor X raises, but also because I felt for some of his observations and I share some of his opinions.

Professor X is the penname of a teacher that for more than ten years has taught as an adjunct English 101 (Introduction to College Writing) and English 102 (Introduction to College Literature), both classes considered being in “the basement of the ivory tower”, since they are mandatory for any student who enrolls in college. The author confesses that he started doing this in order to supplement his income after buying a house his family couldn’t really afford and that he was soon confronted with a reality of the educational system he had known nothing about. He first wrote an article (with the same title) that provoked some violent reaction, so the author was led to a more thorough study – this one. However, the book is more than an analysis of American colleges realities, for it candidly also reveals the narrator’s efforts to better himself either professionally (he has always wanted to become a writer) and socially (he is keen to strengthen his place among middleclass people), therefore mixing personal and professional information.

I do not intend to discuss the literary skills of this essay that came to my attention for other reasons anyway, although I cannot help not to mention in passing that Michael S. Roth, in his review published in LA Times is a little harsh and unfair when he speaks about the “embarrassing amount of rhetorical padding” and the “excruciating number of repetitions” he finds the study guilty with. The author can indeed be suspected of a certain pathetic manner of speaking as well as of a bit of redundancy, but not enough to become unreadable or annoying.

Anyway, leaving aside the form to focus on the content, the main issues raised by the book concern the increasing number of students in colleges that unfortunately leads to a decreasing in quality of the human material, with the immediate consequence of a certain debasement of the professor image. Although the role and precarious position of the adjuncts is only marginally discussed, the author manages to outline a veridical and pathetic figure of these underpaid professors exploited by the same colleges, that seem to share the opinion that they “work for the pleasure of feeling important, and being called professor”.

However, is there an importance of being teacher anymore, or the title has become slightly ironic? Together with Professor X, I’m inclined to believe in truth of the latter. As I was saying somewhere above, the contemporary pedagogical theories tend to replace the magisterial figure of the teacher with a more informal one, in a commendable effort to relax the classroom relations, it is true, but with an inevitable and unfortunate secondary effect: the undermining of the teacher’s authority:

Obviously, if professor and student are learning together, the professor’s position as an authority figure is at risk.  When I grade a student’s work as acceptable or unacceptable, I am asserting my expert’s narrative as having ultimate primacy, and that transaction, so unbalanced, so rooted in inequality, does not sit well in our contemporary minds.

And the lack of respect towards the instructor leads inexorably to a lack of respect towards school and all that school has always been standing for – the opening of the mind, the education of the soul, the discovery of the self and of the universe. Thus, learning has lost his intellectual function for a social one, becoming only a means to get a better job, a better salary and it has lost almost all value per se. And this is because nowadays school encourages mediocrity and proudly divorces performance, while shrewdly leveling at the base:

Our society, for all its blathering about embracing diversity and difference, really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity. We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply a better student – than another. So we level the playing field. Slow readers get extra time on tests. Safe harbor laws protect substance abusers. Students who miss class for religious reasons (…) may be absent without incurring a penalty.

The idea that school should be accessible to everyone is theoretically a generous one. Practically however, is as utopic as the communist ideals – not only because of the big differences in intellect, but also because of the big differences in various people’s appetence to learn. Many of the students who enroll in colleges are sold dreams of a better life directly proportional with a better degree, dreams that will be proved wrong every time one of them fails to graduate. Meanwhile, they force teachers to do remediation instead of the subject-matter classes, downgrading the exigencies, for more and more the teachers are severely made aware that when a student fails is mainly because of faulty teaching, not of deficient learning.

Maybe I am an old-fashioned teacher myself, for I cannot but agree with Professor X and remain true to grammar (exiled from most schools as irrelevant) and to coherence (absent nowadays from most students’ papers) and to a certain elitism of learning:

Art can’t wobble. Writing can’t wobble. We expect our houses to be plumb, our tables solid – why not our paragraphs?

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