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Let's Try Harder, Professor X

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic
By Professor X
New York: Viking Adult Press, 2011

Reviewed by: Theresa Montaño

Theresa Montaño is an associate professor of Chicano Studies and Education at California State University, Northridge. A former middle and high school teacher in Denver and Los Angeles, she is committed to broadening college access for disadvantaged students. She served for six years as an NEA Board Director and currently serves on the board of the California Faculty Association.

I must admit it was quite difficult for me to immerse myself in the recent book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. It took patience to sift through the laments of the anonymous adjunct professor who felt subjected to “writing hell” because he had to teach his underprepared blue-collar students to write. It was hard to endure his longwinded diatribe on who should (and shouldn’t) go to college. Too little of Professor X’s tirade was spent on the more fundamental and genuine problems and struggles faced by adjunct faculty who Professor X correctly describes as “low cost part-timers who work without benefits and make up a growing percentage of many college faculties.” While admittedly, adjunct faculty typically are assigned the most basic courses, more devastating to their careers is the fact that they are the first to be laid off when budgets are cut. I could spend quite a bit of time critiquing several assumptions made by Professor X about teaching, the life of an adjunct professor, the writing process, and underprepared college students; instead I will concentrate on three points: 1) Remedial classes for underprepared college students; 2) Writing as a process; and 3) Who should have access to college. 

Professor X begins his work with an entire chapter devoted to “writing hell” and several pages describing the difficulty of teaching underprepared students to write a cohesive essay. To this, I can empathize (to a point.) As a tenured faculty member who teaches prospective teachers, including many English learners, I know how I spend hours helping students to construct an adequate research paper.  However, I seriously beg to differ with the implication made by Professor X that nurses, correctional officers, construction workers, or middle-aged moms cannot learn to write and should not be in college. Not everyone will be a writer, but everyone should learn to write. Professor X adequately describes the writing process as “the procession and refining of draft after draft,” and he admits, “Writing clearly and well takes effort.”  Yet Professor X dismisses Mina Shaughnessy’s conclusion[1]  that every student can write when he questions whether “there is enough time and money for this to happen….” I maintain that not only can we do it; it is our obligation to do so.  Moreover, I believe that Professor X’s inadequacies speak to how essential it is for the professoriate to have pedagogical knowledge.  It is not enough to be a good writer, to be a good teacher of writing. The scholarship of teaching and learning requires teaching excellence, not just knowledge of the discipline.

Professor X also decries the push for “universal college enrollment,” arguing that perhaps equal access to higher education “is hurting those whom college is meant to help.”  As a professor of color, I wonder whether a poor Chicana from South Central Los Angeles would qualify for higher education. I am convinced that if one were to develop a portrait of the college student desired by Professor X, it would exclude those who are poor, minority, and non-English speaking. In fact, Professor X would probably deny community-college entrance to a student who is not proficient in academic English or anyone who cannot negotiate college writing.  In critiquing President Obama’s community college initiative, Professor X queries, “What to do with the students we already have?” Teach them, professor! What else? Yes, it will take time, adequate funding, and specialized instruction, but all students can master the writing skills necessary to circumnavigate the institution of higher education. Professor X goes on to question the appropriateness of a remedial education, which I would argue, is necessary to help our student their dreams of a college education. While Professor X wonders if remediation works, research on remediation courses offered by the California State University has proven it successful for 80% of students. And it also should be noted that most of our remedial students are disproportionately low-income, students of color who work full-time jobs, support their families and have been subjected to increasing tuition.

Professor X describes his teaching dilemma as one where he is forced to choose between teaching at a “true college level and fail everybody, or dumb things down so that more students can pass.” But he ignores the historical legacy of higher education in this nation, an elitist institution that has systemically denied access to those who are poor, minority, and non-English speaking. His racist and classist cynicism is couched in a sort of funny, sarcastic storytelling, but this does not hide his ivory-tower perspective.  Unfortunately, Professor X’s view of struggling students reflects the dominant discourse in the academy.  The academy frowns upon faculty who support and assist students, considering any assistance as weakening the curriculum.[2] The task of transforming our teaching into an equitable institution will require a lot of work on the part of higher education faculty.

Teaching and learning is a hard and complicated process. Like Professor X, I cannot fathom sending prospective teachers into urban classrooms unless they have mastered academic writing. However, good teaching requires more than good writing.  It takes critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, and the application of content knowledge to real-life experiences. What my students bring to my classroom is that real-life experience. When I design my courses, I consider how to integrate their daily struggles, cultural and linguistic knowledge. I find multiple ways to deliver instruction and engage students through dialogue, activity, and writing.

Like Professor X, “I love my life in the classroom.” I, too, recognize the “daunting nature of our task,” but unlike Professor X I do not characterized our reality as “grimmer.” For as I watch as my students struggle to juggle work, family life, and their studies on a shoestring budget, I recognize that the contributions they will make to this nation are priceless.  And I have every confidence that they will succeed.


[1] Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectatioins: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

[2] Rendon, Laura. Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice and Liberation. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2009.