Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower - by Professor X

This book is not the first thing that Professor X penned about the myth of "education for everyone". His essay of the same title appeared in the Atlantic Monthly about four years ago. X caught quite a bit of flack for suggesting that there were any students who didn't belong in college, so the fact that he expanded on this essay to write a full-length book to say the same thing is pretty brave. Professor X is an adjunct (part-time) English instructor at two different colleges - a private college, and a community college. In both places he teaches students who don't seem to understand the basics of grammar, won't make suggested changes on drafts, and for whom his night classes are just one more thing on their long lists of things to do (along with working full-time and tucking their children in to bed). He tells of students who will never pass English 101, and eventually cut their losses and give up on college. Unfortunately, these students are now saddled with student loan debts for an education that they barely ever started, much less completed. The author discusses the reasons why a college education is considered necessary for so many jobs, and often the reason is simply that there are so many college graduates that an employer may as well hire one as not. It is an "inflated credential".

Professor X writes about public libraries and college libraries in this work. He sees his local "beautiful little jewel" of a public library as an important part of the idyllic existence he dreamed of when he and his wife bought a house they could not afford (which prompted him to look for the part-time teaching gigs). But in most places where I read a passage about college library I could almost hear the author give a dejected sigh:
  • "...the library is so lightly used..."
  • "I went to the college library and checked out a collection of [Shirley Jackson's] short stories. The book hadn't been borrowed for decades..."
  • "I always do an introductory class on research. We all trudge down (emphasis mine) to the library and sit at the computer terminals".
  • "I once had a student who handed in a paper late, and this was his explanation: he got a late start because he couldn't find (emphasis in original) the college library."
  • "Once, as we started to do research, one of my students found the name and call number of a book she wanted to use. She dutifully wrote it all down on a slip. 'So what do I do now?' she wondered. 'Give it to a librarian'."
  • "Last week, I visited the campus library. I found I could hardly work because of the noise."
While there are quite a few passages about libraries, librarians are barely mentioned at all. After taking the time to "trudge down" to the library the students don't have a training session with an actual librarian; X demonstrates the databases himself, indicating that "it doesn't take...long to demonstrate how to search for newspaper and journal articles on Lexis-Nexis, EbscoHost, and Academic Search Elite". Perhaps if he asked a librarian (who probably would take some time with the databases) for assistance he might get better results from students. His anecdote regarding the little used Shirley Jackson book did include a librarian whose "eyes widened in horror when she saw the [Social Security] numbers" and names of the students on the "quaint checkout card" from the 1960s in the back of the book. The librarian "shredded the card and eyed [X] with great suspicion".

Professor X is nostalgic for his own college days when one could read entire journals in hard copy, not just single articles from a database; and students saw their professors doing their own research at the library. I think what X probably doesn't realize is that there have always been more studious and less studious students, and those who love to be in the library browsing the stacks, and those who don't. And professors have always bemoaned students who seemed uninterested in learning for learning sake, and wondered what they were doing in college at all.

The author quotes an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education which suggests that the library be included on tours for prospective students. (Are there really schools that don't include it?) And that "they should be welcomed by a librarian who delivers the message that the library is critically important to each student's academic experience." I will say that Maxwell library is included on the Bridgewater State University campus tour, but we have been unable to convince those in admissions that someone who works in the library should be given a chance to address the baseball-cap bedecked troops that move through the building. Instead we bite our tongues as we hear as the backwards-walking student leaders use words such as "nonsense" to describe the research process, or confide, in a conspiratorial tone, that they've never actually checked a book out of the library.

Reading this book I found myself feeling as cynical as Professor X does about teaching in higher education. Much of what he writes about are things I've observed myself, but the book does have some glimmers of hope as well. I read of community college students who worked hard, and learned a lot, who otherwise would not have been able to afford to go to college, and the author does some reflection on his teaching and recognizes what he has done, or not, that did or didn't work well.

I think the most important lesson I took from this work is that I am indeed happy in my small house deep in the "student ghetto" of Bridgewater. I often think about how much quieter the big houses, farther from the center of town, must be but X has provided me with a cautionary tale of what happens when one goes  looking for greener grass. He demonstrates well how paying for a big house, when he was quite content in his previous (smaller) one, precluded him for actually being able to live in it.

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