25.5.11

IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO DROP THE HAMMER.  Professors might earn tenure by investigating questions that others, including referees and editors, find recondite, and they might treat their classroom as a substitute for the live-comedy gig they really aspired to.  But they get paid to say no and to uphold standards.  Sometimes that's hard, as Professor X discovers In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.  I read through it quickly, and offer an even quicker Book Review No. 11.  The subtitle is Confessions of an Accidental Academic, and the book includes some of the factors contributing to that accident.  He first lands an evening appointment at a private liberal arts college, and then with a community college, teaching composition and other writing courses.  He has a day job, a working wife, and a bit too much mortgage for his own good.  His perspective, thus, is different from that of the mal-employed humanities Ph.D. kitbashing an academic career out of assorted adjuncting gigs while waiting for that Great Novel to go to press or that tenure-track appointment to open up.  We are accordingly spared the lamentations peculiar to individuals who stay in that situation, although we get a feel for the disconnect between the temporary faculty who come in at shift-changing time, as the tenured faculty and office staff head for the parking lot.

In the Basement began as an Atlantic essay that took some stick from assorted academicians, and some of the book is a response to those criticisms.  The book, however, is not another Generation X Goes to College, a genuinely angry description of the work, or lack thereof, of Californian community-college journalism majors.  It's not Clayton Cramer in Pajamas Media.
There are, however, a disturbingly large number of students who are wasting resources. Not surprisingly, there are students who lack the emotional maturity to be in college. They are unable to focus their time and energy on studying for tests and completing assignments. Many of these students have the skills; a few years at minimum wage asking “Would you like fries with that?” will probably fix this. (If not, there really is no hope.)

Some students are suffering from family or employment problems that make you want to go slap someone around: emotional wreckage from divorces, kids under pressure to work so many hours in family businesses that they don’t have time for their studies, employers who refuse to work around class schedules, and insecure men who resent “the little woman” trying to make anything of herself. These students may be wasting resources this semester, but perhaps nextsemester, they will have straightened out their complicated personal lives.

Then there are students who lack some very basic skills. In a recent discussion of the Pell Grant program, one commenter who described herself as an instructor at a community college suggested that Pell Grants should only be available to“those students who can write a complete sentence.” I have not seen many students who are that deficient. I have seen quite a few who lack the skills that used to be learned in junior high school: correct use of “their” not “there”; the distinction between “it’s” and “its”; that a possessive (“parliament’s”) is not the same as a plural (“parliaments”).  Trying to teach college level skills to students with such serious educational deficiencies is rather like trying to teach calculus to students who have not yet mastered algebra.

Ignorance can be fixed. This is one of our jobs at a community college: to help students who were not at the top of their high school graduating class reach a skill level that makes a four-year school at least possible.
Professor X has the commuters and the returning students and the non-traditionals, the usual gondola-load of Distressed Material, but he doesn't get down on them.  Page 37: "My students were unskilled and unpracticed writers, but they weren't stupid; they knew what the point of the comparison essay was.  The devil was in the doing."  So it is.  Professor X does not use his book to develop a coherent evaluation of the forces that left so many of his charges unprepared to do the writing.  He has an opportunity, page 79, to question the constructivist nonsense that I maintain is a fundamental cause of academic decline, but passes on it.  "No one would expect to pass a calculus class if he had not yet mastered basic arithmetic.  Why, then, are most attempts to adhere to basic standards in the use of the English language in college courses heaped with scorn?"  Perhaps the answer comes at page 144.  "Our American unwillingness to count even the most hopeless of us out in the educational marathon may be one of the most debilitating ideas in contemporary culture, a jagged gash through which vitality and truthfulness and quality slowly drain away."  That's because all decisions involve trade-offs.  Page 242.
I have had no choice but to recognize that many of my students have no business being in college.  Putting an end to their participation without sentencing them to a life in the aisles of Wal-Mart would require that Americans relinquish their ill-thought-out love affair with higher education.  Which would require an abandonment of the cockeyed optimism that has taken over our educational discourse.
Ultimately, that cockeyed optimism is about the optimal allocation of resources to second, or third chances.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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