Much talk around the rhet/comp blogosphere and on the WPA-L about this Atlantic Monthly article, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." If you haven’t read it, in my view it is an all too commonly represented perspective on teaching writing. The anonymous author presents hirself as an overworked, underpaid adjunct who is placed in the unfortunate circumstance of teaching underprepared and disinterested students while serving as a crucial gatekeeper and protector of the standards of higher education.
Here is a part I found especially interesting where the author discusses a moment of doubt before failing a student.
I thought briefly of passing Ms. L., of slipping her the old
gentlewoman’s C-minus. But I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to the
other students. By passing Ms. L., I would be eroding the standards of
the school for which I worked. Besides, I nurse a healthy ration of
paranoia. What if she were a plant from The New York Times
doing a story on the declining standards of the nation’s colleges? In
my mind’s eye, the front page of a newspaper spun madly, as in old
movies, coming to rest to reveal a damning headline:
THIS IS A C?
Illiterate Mess Garners ‘Average’ Grade
Adjunct Says Student ‘Needed’ to Pass, ‘Tried Hard’
No, I would adhere to academic standards, and keep myself off the front page.
Who knows, maybe Ms. L really did need to take the class again, but somewhere along the line here she is transformed into an "illiterate mess." Maybe this is a poor attempt at humor. However even if this is joking hyperbole about the author’s level of paranoia, the focus on standards and judgment is noteworthy.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about…
This article makes many teachers of writing sad and angry. We don’t view our students this way. We don’t employ the outmoded and classist pedagogy described here, and we are hardly surprised by its stunning failure. On the other hand, it is also familiar. We have all heard comments of these kinds from colleagues. Perhaps we have even uttered similar things ourselves in moments of frustration. Successful teaching requires a great deal of commitment from teachers, so we ought to be able to allow ourselves to be disappointed, discouraged, and worn out from time to time.
Hopefully we don’t write articles for the Atlantic Monthly (or post to blogs) when we’re in that mind state. And certainly we don’t bring that mind state to our classrooms or our students’ writing.
But this article goes a lot further than that. The author suggests that these students don’t belong in college.
although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the
colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States
of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of
irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the
adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst
students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.
What is meant by "worst" here? FYC, as a first-year course, is obviously a site for students to enter into college. Nowadays many students take AP courses to place out of FYC, and maybe those are the stronger academic students. I don’t know. It is likely that by teaching in the evening as this author does, s/he encounters many more non-trad students. My mom was a non-trad and got her BSN one year before I got my BA. I suppose what makes such students the "worst" is that they are distant from a certain ideological notion of students. They are perhaps unlikely to share in conventional notions of literacy and academic discourse.
And this adjunct is clearly within that convention. The discussion of pedagogy here would indicate virtually no familiarity with rhet/comp methods or research. The praise of canonical literature would indicate a familiar literary studies education and ideology, right down to the belief that reading "great works" will somehow save students. It has always bewildered me how people who are otherwise intelligent and clearly well-educated can manage to be so easily duped by such a transparent ideological conceit.
Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious
thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of
value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police
officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity
with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so
that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed?…But although I may be biased, being an English instructor and all, I
can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and
broadening and ultimately good for you.
One can’t help but wonder if the author has read Ellison and Steinbeck hirself and ask why these novels didn’t work their magic on her/him. Why can’t s/he understand the lives of those who simply cannot fix their sentences or carry out the inane research exercises s/he assigns? Why isn’t she less likely to indulge in the kind of profiling that leads the author on the first day of class to decide Ms. L is likely the fail the course?
Why hasn’t the literary experience led to spacious thinking for self-styled "Professor X"?
Ultimately though I find this most regrettable for other adjuncts. As I pointed to in my previous post, many adjuncts view themselves as special allies of the students derided in this essay. Many adjuncts view themselves as the ones who really care about teaching as opposed to tenured faculty who have so many other professional goals and obligations.
And yet here we see the very opposite at work.
No one should be surprised that there are people like this in the academy. It’s just unfortunate that they get to write for the Atlantic Monthly.