After his essay in the Atlantic Monthly with the same title sparked such an academic furor, the anonymous author responds to his critics and expands his thesis with In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. As an adjunct instructor of introductory writing courses at a couple of colleges, he feels that many of the students he encounters are unsuited and unqualified for higher education, but that they are forced into it, and usually at considerable debt, because of a career market that requires a diploma even when the specific job wouldn’t seem to need it. “They have been abducted into college,” he writes of such students, “sold a bill of goods.”
How did the essay in the Atlantic Monthly lead to this book? Did you intend this as an expansion of that or a response to the criticism you received from that?
A little of both. A magazine article can only go so far. I would hope that the book presents a fuller, more nuanced picture of my arguments. I was roundly criticized in some circles for my article. I’ve been called, among other things, an elitist because I had the temerity to suggest that there are those in college who are not ready to do bona fide college work. I’ve been accused of placing too high a value on academic accomplishment. The reality is quite otherwise. I place no more value on academics, as a skill, than I do on HVAC repair or diamond cutting. The difficulty is that we have wildly expanded college rolls, and underprepared students are sitting in college classes fired up to struggle and work hard and do well, and they just aren’t ready for it.
What sort of response do you anticipate the book will generate?
About the same as the original article I expect. Passions are bound to be inflamed on all sides. There are those who reflexively embrace the narrative of decline: colleges, students, standards—it’s all gone to seed! This is a wild simplification of my argument, but nonetheless appealing to some. Others, those who believe in the inherent nobility of the nontraditional college student, will deny the truth of what I portray, as though my saying that a student lacks fundamental writing skills is somehow an insult. Some will laud Professor X as a voice crying in the wilderness. Others will call him a perfect fool.
What was your reason for writing it?
How could I not have written it? Becoming an adjunct instructor a decade ago was one of the biggest things I’ve ever done. I’m always telling my students to mine their experiences when writing, and now I am merely following my own advice. I need to write about what I have seen in the college classroom, not to mention the ramifications of adjuncting in my own life, to sort out, truly, what I think about it all.
If society followed your prescriptions, wouldn’t you be out of work as a teacher?
Of course I would. But is it so odd for my beliefs about societal issues to conflict with my own interests? I support the people of Egypt in their quest for self-determination, but I am well aware that their actions may result in my paying a lot more money at the gas pump. I think that colleges are overbooked with students, but until someone pays Professor X a bit of attention and makes some changes—not very likely, any of that—then I’ll teach as many classes as I am allowed to.
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic
Viking / March 31, 2011 / 9780670022564 / $25.95