In The Basement of the Ivory Tower

"Professor X" is not a professor, as he reminds his students. He is, by day, a government employee with an MFA and, by night, an adjunct instructor at both a four-year and a community college. After X bought more house than he could afford, he started adjuncting, teaching composition and literature for mortgage money. When his students submitted their first set of papers, X was shocked! The students' writing was, he claims, barely high-school level.  This college, he was stunned to discover, was nothing like the one he attended.


Reading In The Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of An Accidental Academic, one is tempted to write "please focus" in the margins. X covers teaching students who struggle to write academic essays, the misguided idea that all Americans should attend college, middle-class troubles with homeownership, ruminations on some famous writers, what the critics said about his article in The Atlantic that lead to this book, and, finally (because the book is, as X tells us in the Author's Note, a "quest narrative"), how he stopped fighting and learned to love being a middle-aged, suburban father with a day job and a chance to talk about Great Literature at night.


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

Anne Trubek is Chair of Rhetoric and Composition at Oberlin College and the author of A Skeptic's Guide To Writers' Houses.

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