In The Basement of the Ivory Tower

“Professor X” is not a professor, as he reminds his students. Heis, by day, a government employee with an MFA and, by night, an adjunctinstructor at both a four-year and a community college. After X boughtmore house than he could afford, he started adjuncting, teaching compositionand literature for mortgage money. When his students submitted their first setof papers, X was shocked! The students’ writing was, he claims, barelyhigh-school level.  This college, he was stunned to discover, was nothinglike the one he attended.

Reading In The Basementof the Ivory Tower: Confessions of An Accidental Academic, oneis tempted to write “please focus” in the margins. X covers teachingstudents who struggle to write academic essays, the misguided idea that allAmericans should attend college, middle-class troubles with homeownership,ruminations on some famous writers, what the critics said about his article in TheAtlantic that lead to this book, and, finally (because the book is, as Xtells us in the Author’s Note, a “quest narrative”), how he stoppedfighting and learned to love being a middle-aged, suburban father with a dayjob and a chance to talk about Great Literature at night.

X is engaging andlikeable. But this book is an act of bad faith. Written anonymously (“becauseI love teaching and I love my colleges”), these “confessions”only glance at scholarship on effective writing pedagogy. The author complainsstudents are underprepared for college—yet never comments on his lack ofteacher training.  I doubt he would have given one of his students a highgrade for unsigned, unfocused, shoddily researched work.


AnneTrubek is Chair of Rhetoric and Composition at Oberlin College and the authorof A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses.

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