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Book Review: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X

Non-Fiction Reviews

Book Review: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X

In the Blink of an Eye by Michael Waltrip
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic
Professor X
Viking Adult, 288 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

Cri de Coeur

“I had not thought death had undone so many …”
T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

[Full (enough) disclosure: I taught my first Freshman Composition course as a TA at the University of Michigan in 1952, and retired as a Full Professor from UCLA in 1994, after holding ladder-rank positions at NYU, Hunter College, and Hamilton College, 51 years in classrooms and lecture halls.]

Reading through Professor X’s decade-long career, a suite of semi-autobiographical essays on his life as a Helot in the ranks of the more-or-less novel army of educators recruited during the past quarter century, proved anguishing. Yes, of course I had in my early years met in classes taught day and night most of the young and old Americans he works with, or worked upon, or tried to instruct in the basics of writing an English sentence; but back in the 1950s they’d graduated out of high schools that maintained minimal standards of achievement from at least the 10th grade on. Graduated, not been released or dropped [out] into the world as less than semi-literate to make their way; rather, to try and make a living. Ever since the Internet arrived in this century, however, I began to see what two professor pals at Cambridge had in the 1990’s deplored in England: people who commented in the free space of the media online reserved for “Comment,” as opposed to writing Letters to the Editor, were simply persons venting hatreds of all and everything in non-literate imitations of drunks shouting in a bar, or hooligans yelling at a soccer match. In the UK then, K-6 was generally a bog in most industrial towns. Nowadays, most any OpEd article offering free internet Comments space will be instantly stocked with dozens of paragraphs, rantings spewed sans punctuation, spelling, or basic grammar (for which in reality most people have no need in conversation viva voce, no matter how elevated a newspaper’s pretensions to classy style). In short, people tap out what they wish to tell the world more or less in a language that might be heard in some crack-house room sunk in stuporous squalor. We’re not talking here about drugstore racks of popular “people gossip” magazines or muck-raking tabloids. We’re talking about everyday mindless pottage, aka “Comments” from the citizens of advanced and long-established democracies.

Professor X, who left school with a Master’s diploma in “Creative Writing,” never achieved the sine qua non for a possible life in our venues of “higher” education: what another desperate writer with a similar MFA I once heard denominate as “Vitamin T” — “T” meaning Tenure. He has labored over a decade of nights at two Junior Colleges, his 101 classes in composition and literature renewed only because this period witnessed a monstrous mushrooming of community colleges in every state and mid-sized town in the land. His own dungeons he quaintly names Pembrook College and Huron State, where he supplements a steady day job at some “government” agency. He relates how and why he took up those traces to drag a heavy plow along their fallow fields because he was a young husband and father and the couple had made the fatal mistake of buying a larger house than they could afford — at the wrong time — when the housing bubble was beginning to swell and brokers were still exhilarant, and people optimistic. That was before the great bubbles of easy-cash lending hit this country, before the catastrophe now called “9/11.” The old term used by Marxists, “wage slave,” doesn’t quite apply to today’s legions of helpless, unemployed and suddenly unemployable people. I don’t know what might be better than Helot, the slaves ancient Sparta threw into battle and grew powerful with … until it didn’t, of course, eventually failing as did a forty or so run of years for Athens’ democracy – before celebrities and actors and ran the show.

Professor X describes his 3-hours a night, 3-times a week classes pounding at the foreheads ranged before him in Writing 101, and/or Literature 101; he relates his casual hiring by indifferent Deans at indifferent colleges who simply need the bodies of students and lecturers, that is, “adjuncts,” to meet their swelling course lists; and he offers examples of the papers handed up by the harried, befuddled, exhausted and depressed fillers of seats at 25 desks. He reviews scenes that ought to have been as entertaining as those in a perpetual favorite by The Depression era’s Leo Rosten, THE EDUCATION OF HYMAN KAPLAN. Instead they loom as something out of Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s INFERNO or those fantastic prison dungeons draped with chains and torture machines, the charnel houses etched by Piranesi. Only, today such modern basement chambers are occupied by 20-to-45 year-old intellectual innocents, maundering pilgrims seeking certificates of qualification. Another association that occurs to me is Henry Miller’s portrayal of his early working-life when he pretended to function as what today’s euphemism terms a “human resources” manager in Manhattan for the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, the surreally-nutso pages of which open his TROPIC OF CAPRICORN. Miller, unmarried, finally gave up and fled to Paris in the 1930’s, just as our famous expats were lighting out for the States.

X’s short 21 chapters of informal prose mix the personal-poignant and social-pathetic. They illuminate the pathology of a multi-billion-dollar purely-American enterprise: the community college network snaking through 50 States. Bloated with the goodwill of the ingrained national optimism, it expresses our mania for pieces of paper guaranteeing employable skills supposedly learned from hundreds of pages of sociopsychological babble, the ink-tracks of text in thick books laying out techniques of “administration” by the numbers. These tomes make up the stuff of a universe remote from, indeed alien to the customary ways of age-old master-apprentice systems in other societies and lost civilizations. The last quarter-century has seen waves of money (billions in the recent Bush-presidency years) flooding over vacant real estate, paying for buildings that house administrative squadrons upstairs and adjuncts below; and even more billions now proposed and promised by an Obama “Initiative” to prepare millions of youth for of all sorts of jobs, employment opportunities vanishing like puffs of vapor in the recession presently afflicting this country. The vast structures of State universities that budded in the early 20th century and blossomed after WW II, replacing former Schools of Education, certificate mills that taught teachers teaching, derided at mid-century, morphed into universities, colleges, and junior colleges intended to be vocational, as opposed to today’s all-powerful “research” institutions managing well-enough, given lip-service encouragement by federally-supported professional schools. The juniors desperately need bodies for ballast, but not, as it turns out, securely-tenured professors with doctorate degrees, our familiar globe-trotters to conferences discussing our ever-labile societies: the social and political “scientists,” trending to become public policy-analysts on behalf of a public that knows not such things. [The young Jonathan Swift knew all about “academies,” and described them perfectly in 1710 in his introduction to A TALE OF A TUB: Academies are meant to distract and corral those misfit wits good only to annoy a realm’s.]

Little by little, yet pretty fast nonetheless, a lucrative “text-book” industry developed after 1945; not manuals of chemistry or biology or physics, but potted run-throughs of history and society that metastasized and inserted themselves into the cells in which students sit stunned, absorbing a monotonous rodomontade pouring not from upstairs professors but desperate, part-time “adjuncts” nightly scrawling ten-dollar words over blackboards in the basements of the Ivory Tower. These adjuncts, like Pharaoh’s overseers in an old Technicolor flick, drive them along struggling to build upon concocted themes, to make unreadable “research” papers compounded of downloaded snippets of plagiaries. Finally, these adjuncts agonize over inventing tender-hearted rationales for assigning grades below C-, below D, but most often that fatal F for which no (-) is necessary.

Research? By non-readers? Into what? For why? At best, knowledge distilled out of texts so full of drearily long chapters detailing how to compose an inter-office memorandum or sales report — were one so fortunate as to get to work in an office?

All this social disaster welling up in so many varieties is run through genially by Professor X. What is most dispiriting are quotations taken from textbooks pretending to teach adjuncts how to teach whatever must be taught, manuals choking with abominable, incomprehensible jargon presuming some educational purpose produced annually in theory-for-administrators workshops. What is that all but deliquescence of what once was learning; degenerate, humbug lucubrations spooned out in dollops of polysyllabic neologisms. Worse, whereas anthologies of primary works were once upon deemed useful — as in a two-volume set for sophomores known familiarly if long ago as “English Literature from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” — those have been “translated’ into triaged sets of “readings,” “interpretations” of “meanings,” in which folios of psychobabble are applied to what were anciently the Humanities in Renaissance times half a millennium gone. Even so, things would not be as truly bad as X describes them, good-humoredly enough, meanwhile powdering crayons against the chalkboard, were students, mostly working people by day, not required to buy them, let alone read them, though they may not be ready to tackle paragraphs at the 9th grade level.

X doesn’t mock his fate. He is a serious adjunct. He wants to teach what writers of fiction or essays or poems go on about, if not necessarily what those writings actually say. Alas, he’s up against blank incomprehension. What purpose is served, why are people forced to pass courses in writing essays analyzing short stories, when they come to class from a contemporary culture in which reading is not a skill they have tentatively or scarcely acquired. Any honest full prof at a top university would admit that his or her own reading, even into the later 60s of life, remains something insecure, that any chestnut from Shakespeare or the Book of Proverbs turns out to be rather more meaningful than could have been supposed at 20, 30, 40 or even 50. Meaning: that meaning flowers or grows intense through experience of a life lived long enough to reveal meaning. To read a book in any canon demands a discipline that Emerson advised: A book must be read as deliberately as it was written. Anyhow, do 90 out of 100 of those high school graduates drafted, recruited, or chivvied into junior colleges today know what that statement means if they do not and cannot write a page of grammatically-arranged words narrating the day they’ve just passed, and hope to make it interesting to themselves, let alone someone else? Who’s kidding whom?

All this trouble and more — like the telegram-delivery messengers Henry Miller hired who fall into epileptic fits as soon as they step into the street, or who toss the lot into a sewer, as I once saw a Sicilian postman do with a sackful of tourist cards freshly-posted at a lunch-stop — is rehearsed by X. It is a litany strung out during a decade of purgatorial penance for having bought too large a home carrying too high a mortgage. But displayed without self-pity although with sympathy for his charges. Because — and here’s what the book’s reader comes away with — a million a year or more of such students as he’s tasked to instruct ought never have been forced to suffer, some for years, to pursue 100 college-level credits most of which are irrelevant to possible future employers, whether companies or professions like nursing or patient-care. Most jobs today have no need for the mastery of a few pages of plagiarized blather about Jay Gatsby, or deconstruction of a ghastly lamentation for her father by Sylvia Plath. Not only to suffer the injury of such arbitrary brainwork, but to suffer the worse insult of an accumulated load of debt that with the most decent will and back-breaking effort in the world cannot be paid off in 30 years, let alone allowed to lapse through bankruptcy — according to current legislation regarding Federal loans. For that matter, the Fed’s sovereign debt may never be redeemable by the Chinese who bought it.

Yes, a night course in a skill, accountancy, say, or bookkeeping, if it’s not quite yet canned or automated into a computer program or two; practical skills in reading blueprints, say; or running a complex milling machine — but, English 101 compositions? X must of course bend his head to drink at all this social muck to keep a roof above his family. Notwithstanding, he knows where he’s at. Moreover where we are at, so far as educating the average high school person of our time above his or her ability. Henry Miller collected into THE AIR-CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE some of his wildest outpourings against a crazed America nearly a century ago. But today Professor X’s fluorescent-lit, evening-hour classrooms populated by sweltering victims of educationalisms are mostly not even air-conditioned.

In short, what credits are indispensable today and tomorrow in our multi-billion dollar institutions of the junior college, out of which less than 40% can climb, only to find themselves loaded with monstrous debt? What credits are needed in a horizontally-oriented, social-networked society in which 140 tweeted characters comprise mini-minor communication? What are compositions treating “literature” to people who may or may not have jobs from which they come home [when not slogging off to a night-class] to stare at the tv screen, at sports broadcast 24/7, snatches of headline news, serialized “soaps” or sitcoms boosted by laugh-tracks anciently-recorded in radio days? Why undergo opaque teachings from some adjunct scarcely better off economically than themselves, when or if they can pay for cable-channels that might show how something is manufactured, trek through a forest and study its primitives, or zoom out to visit some galaxy blasted into a black hole once upon a whenever?

As for what is taught when it’s not vocational, observe most adults as they trot through a museum; see if they pause long enough to look at something with more than a glance. Valued objects ask to be “read,” as Emerson says, deliberately; vertically, as it were. Most people have neither the time, nor training, nor desire to descend into depth. Who can blame them? But the students X tries to help realize a page or two of prose are being forced to submit to a loony, newfangled menu of “credit requirements” in hopes of earning an hour’s pay; usually not offered at the same rate as sheer physical labor, mining or farming or road-laying, truck-driving or assembly-line tasks, building-construction, or whatever is materially-needed to house us and feed us. There are all those sales-workers, supermarket checkout “associates,” mechanics, repairers or office people who make do with reading quite well-enough to answer our questions in any business.

X may survive in his basement in the Ivory Tower. X might be spared, even escape a disaster that cannot be legislated away or floated to safety on a raft made with billions of fiat cash. At this hour, who knows how many thousands of adjuncts are expecting termination as colleges scale back, cutting out hundreds of courses, reducing student admissions 30% or more. This is happening in California.

Professor X in youth would be a writer. He seems not to have intuited the truth that any culture disposes of innumerable writers or painters or sculptors, composers or performers, and all who pursue the Arts. Only a few important or great ones ever emerge over time. He acknowledges naivety. Raging in not-so quiet desperation at the educationalists who notwithstanding make it possible for him to endure it, Professor X ends expressing a decent gratitude to all those uneducated, undeveloped souls being ground to dust in our foolish system of “accreditation.” That’s honest. Whether his book at this juncture in history flashes a scintilla of light that reveals our situation as a perhaps teachable, if not salvageable, moment, is hard to say. Still, he’s tried. So far, it seems, castigation not compliment has been hurled at him. I recommend this work, the outcry of a middle-aged man trapped in the morass of the unconscionable. Though, fun to read, it ain’t.

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Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA

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