Monday, May 19, 2008

But Why Not Try Something Different?

"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" is an article in this month's Atlantic penned by an anonymous adjunct writing teacher calling himself (I kid you not) "Professor X." As you might expect, some of his small-college freshmen and community college students aren't very good at writing or reading literature. X uses this experience as a basis to argue... well, really, to almost argue, to half-heartedly argue, almost nothing, other than his students aren't very good, and that that's a problem.

He comes to the verge of saying either the arch-reactionary "the idea of universal education is inherently flawed and we should abandon it" or the stalwartly progressive "colleges are motivated by greed and primary education is a joke." But he doesn't quite commit to either of those propositions. Instead, he flunks a lot of people.

If Professor X were my student, I would tell him that his thesis is muddled at best and trivial at worst. Yes, your students have gaps in their education; but what does this mean, and what must be done? He lectures his students not to write vaguely and without a clear argument on topics like "gun control," but he has done exactly the same thing, albeit with a more successful impressionistic style and a nobler smattering of middle-high-cultural references.

The great pattern of this essay, in fact, is for its author to censure an act and then immediately to commit that same act. He follows a self-amused joke about his students' unconscious use of mixed metaphors with a wholly sincere one -- "The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades." I'm not entirely sure that the problem with that metaphor is that it's mixed, confused, or meaningless, but I know that it's disastrous, and that the first remedy I would apply would be to eliminate "zeitgeist." There's also his premonition that one of his students, a middle-aged woman, would fail his course, a premonition he didn't want to share for fear of appearing to be "a sexist, ageist, intellectual snob." Then he writes: "In her own mind, she was a feel-good segment on Oprah." Ding ding ding! We have a winner!

It never occurs to Professor X -- despite his powerful telepathic powers -- that he should abandon his useless textbook or give up on the Joyce and the Faulkner that stump and bore his ill-prepared students. This, I think, is the cardinal law for all teachers: if it doesn't work, if it doesn't help you to teach and your students to learn, get rid of it. Try something different.

It also never occurs to him to teach introductory or remedial material as if it were introductory or remedial. Acknowledgment of "deficits," as he puts it, demands pedagogical and institutional adjustment, not just awkward woe-is-I-and-all-of-us lamentations. Colleges and universities have handled significant shifts in their student bodies, organizational bureaucracies, and teaching content before. But it required them to try something different, to change what they do -- not just to reflect and lacerate and masticate and ultimately to act as if nothing has changed at all.

Also, one last complaint: who is this guy that he got to write an essay in the Atlantic? I want to write an essay in the Atlantic.

And okay, one more: anonymity in the academy has gone way too far. Virtually anytime anyone working for a university complains about anything having to do with the business end of the academy, they do so under the cover of a pseudonym. Except in the rarest of cases, we are not whistleblowers, and the CYA doxa ultimately hurts open discussion. It also causes these issues to descend into personal gripes and complaints. I think Professor X's article would have benefited tremendously from cutting the anecdotes that could have potentially identified someone else and formulated a position that he could have signed his name to and been willing to defend.

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