Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

Being an adjunct isn't all bad. That's one of the conclusions drawn by the "accidental academic" who wrote In the Basement of the Ivory Tower about his own experiences doing what I have done for the past 27 years, trying to teach first-year college students to write and to enjoy some of the fiction and essays that are put into Introduction to Literature anthologies.

I found the book completely unsurprising, a little discouragingly so, since it seems that things are tough all over, and in pretty much the same way. Nowhere does anyone really know what an adjunct does in the classroom.  Nowhere is an adjunct able to turn to a colleague for advice, and infrequent workshops on things like "Learner-Centered Assessment" are little help.  Everywhere adjuncts get exactly the same kinds of comments on course evaluations:  "before I would of never voluntarily read a book" and the teacher is "enthusiastic...which helps make the three hours go by quicker."

This book was written after the June 2008 article in The Atlantic made such waves, spurring criticism of the anonymity of "Professor X" and much caviling (mostly from the tenured) about the observations he makes about the classes no one else wants to teach or even knows very much about.

What he says about the isolation in which he works rings true to me:  "I have worked as an adjunct instructor now for a decade. I have been observed twice, once by each school."  I myself have worked as a teaching assistant and then an adjunct instructor for four different colleges over the past 27 years.  As a TA, I was observed once, the semester I began teaching.  As an adjunct, I was observed for the length of one 50-minute class by two of the three colleges I worked for during the first semester I worked there.  (At the other one, I received a phone call from the hospital bed where I had landed after an emergency to verify that I wouldn't be teaching that week, so the personnel department could "adjust" my pay).  As Professor X observes, "no one sees what goes on except the students, and their judgments are fallible."

My favorite part of the adjunct discussion is always the obligatory point at which a tenured faculty member declares passionately that the college is "taking advantage" of the adjuncts and not paying them enough, which, as "Professor X" points out, strikes the adjunct as "not honest but smug."

My least favorite part, the part this book explains very well, is the despair that writing teachers witness and perpetuate.  "Unsuccessful students grow up thinking not just that their work has no value, but that it never can have any value, and thus they cannot put in the wholehearted effort that college demands."  So what they write, as he says, is full of the "commonplace...and the lack of ideas makes for a prose that churns in place. The reading assignments are attempts to "make up, with a small clutch of baby steps, for a lifetime of not reading."  Many of the students hand in work that is "just an assignment, with no relevance to the real world. For the indifferent student, all work is busy work, empty effort to occupy time and, hopefully, garner some credit in the end."  The attempt to grade these assignments "rankles and depresses" Professor X, who knows that "when I give a failing grade to a student, I am not just passing judgment on some abstract intellectual exercise. I am impeding that student's progress, thwarting his ambition, keeping him down, committing the universal crime of messing with his livelihood--not to mention forcing him to pay the tuition charge all over again....any poor grade I issue may mean disastrous economic consequences."

And as he says, "we're not talking nuance here. My students who fail do so with an intensity that is operatic."  He talks about giving quizzes on whether characters are alive or dead at the end of the work.  I didn't know this was universal but am not surprised; I have a quiz in my files entitled "Othello killer quiz" on which there are three questions:  Who kills Desdemona? Who kills Emilia? and the last one, the sort-of-trick question: Who kills Othello?

The parts of this book I like best are when he talks about the details of teaching writing, how it's easy to spend "40 minutes on the first paragraph" and how "writing is thinking."  It's hard work, teaching writing.  It can be immensely satisfying, but it's exhausting, walking others through all those turns and twists of logic and suggesting ways to find evidence for it.  Writing teachers, who are like computing experts and medical doctors in being continually asked by friends and loved ones for a little help on the side, are always having to balance their exhaustion with their fondness for the petitioner.

The parts of the book I find least convincing include his conclusion about who should be in college and who shouldn't. Oddly enough, in a book fighting against all sorts of elitist ideas, I found his views a bit elitist.  It's true that for some of the students we adjuncts see "the classes are more difficult than they could have dreamed, and there is simply no time to complete all the work," but I disagree that this means those students might not belong in college at all. If it means anything to me (as a person who's gotten out of the game rather than try to reform it), it means that 15-week semesters are too short for writing classes...and I speak as someone who tried to do that kind of work with students during a 10-week quarter.

There are several other things I don't agree with Professor X about.  He tries to teach students to write the "composition," something "built, crafted, worked on, composed."  I favor teaching the essay--a piece of writing that is a trial or attempt from a personal point of view--because I'm more interested in teaching critical thinking than in teaching the craft of writing.

I don't necessarily think that using Aristotle's various invention techniques, so often featured in composition textbooks as assignments in themselves (narrative, description, compare/contrast, analysis, cause and effect) is the best way to teach writing in college.  I find it curious that Professor X doesn't even question the set-up of what I like to call the course in "writing without content," even when he cogently describes the complications inherent in helping students come up with a topic for a research paper.  However interested he may be in the topic of the research, it's still a paper for which the research doesn't really matter. It's what he talks about elsewhere, a paper in which the content is not important, but proving that the student can follow the steps is the whole point of the exercise.  I think that this kind of assignment is one of the problems with the way we teach writing in college today. Who wants to write for a grader?  College students, like other humans, want to write something that will be read.  There are ways to balance the requirement that writing be graded with the necessity of finding ways to read some of it, but Professor X doesn't seem to have discovered any of these yet.

Professor X confesses that his acquaintance with the guidelines for teaching writing put out by Writing Program Administrators and his reading of some of the experts in the field of rhetoric and composition is quite recent (since the Atlantic article came out), but he tries to draw conclusions from it anyway, as if anyone who actually goes to graduate school to learn this stuff is wasting their time, even admitting that he "was looking for some magic, for a tool kit."  A writing teacher should know that there are no shortcuts.

I don't agree that "women are more empathetic than men" as adjuncts (and wonder why someone who presumably teaches the avoidance of generalization in writing would include one like that in his own writing).

And finally, I wonder why he includes the story of one plagiarizing student only to illustrate the danger he feels alone with such students at night in the "basement," rather than to discuss any of the issues a writer might find interesting about the wide range of options for paper-writing by hire available on the internet today.

I admire Professor X for starting this discussion, and hope that it doesn't end with this one book. There's a lot more to say about this topic, and I applaud his bravery in caring enough to stand up and tell it like it is for one of the people who other Professors don't usually notice except to say what a shame it is that so much of our higher education system depends on his hard work, conscientiousness, and enthusiasm for his subject matter.

25 comments:

FreshHell said...

Interesting. My husband was one of those adjuncts for ages and ages, teaching writing to freshmen. The rules changed depending on which tenured (or almost-tenured) faculty person was saddled with chairing that dept the English Dept didn't want. It's now a whole different ball of wax and my husband has a full time job teaching writing very differently. I can only read this review as someone who sits on the sidelines of this discussion and nods her head. I can't add anything remotely useful to it.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, your husband got the brass ring that has always been just out of reach for me.

I will be happy to mail my copy of this book to the first person who asks, and ask that person to send it on to the next. This is a book that needs to circulate.

kittiesx3 said...

I got into quite an argument with one of my mentors about college adminssions. Kansas University was an open enrollment university (and may still be) which meant if someone graduated from a Kansas high school, he or she was automatically accepted at KU. A very vocal minority of the tenured professors had a lot of heartburn over this because a high school diploma didn’t mean that person was actually prepared for college in terms of math and writing skills.

I started college at 29. I was at best a mediocre high school student (graduated 150th out of 300) but was admitted to KU, probably because I was 29 since I didn’t graduate from a KS high school But this mentor of mine, one who nominated me for various academic awards, who sponsored projects I did, thought that I should not have been admitted. I thought my track record even then showed otherwise.

Re the loneliness and isolation of the adjuncts—that’s actually very similar to my career as a consultant. We tend to be looked down on: have you heard the one about what a consultant is? Someone you’ve asked to tell you what time it is, who borrows your watch, tells you the time and then sends you bill. We usually are at a company only for a specific project that’s often high profile and unpopular (think of the Bobs in Office Space), and then we move on. We might not see our home offices for months. So yes, I get the isolation you’re talking about. On the other hand, I miss all the office BS.

Cschu said...

This was a very thoughtful review, Jeanne. It did a good job of articulating some of the useful and insightful things you have said about teaching writing over the years.

FreshHell said...

Jeanne, basically he got it because he'd just been there so long that he had a different kind of tenure when the whole writing "dept" was folded into a new college that created a new kid of teaching job. He applied and didn't get the faculty position the first time around. Had to wait for a number of the first timers to leave. He's certainly put in his time there.

So, we lived in abject poverty for ages even though his job allowed for a bit less childcare when the kids were tiny and he got some music stuff done. Now we are both full time and he has a long commute 4-5 days a week. But I no longer have to play a shell game with money like I used to. Still paying off the debt incurred in those 15+ years. My kids have no college funds. He has no retirement fund to speak of. The adjunct life affects more than the students or the teacher him/herself. It has ripple effects.

lemming said...

I would love to read this - please pass along!

-lemming

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I would like to read it too. While it's the adjuncting part I should be identifying with, it's the writing part that interests me. I don't teach writing, at least not officially. But when I do core courses for non-majors, I make them writing intensive. Why? Because they need it and I like to teach it. Or maybe I just like to kill myself with grading.

I'm intrigued by the separation of writing as skill and content. I teach writing through content, which is what I'm being paid to communicate. There is certain knowledge they need to acquire at the end of Music 101. But I know that the vast majority of them are never going to take another music course. For most of them, then, a lot of what the department wants them to know is not that important in the long run. I feel like what I can give them is research and writing skills and the tools to pursue later musical interests, should they have them. But overall, I'm more interested in figuring out how to get them to generate ideas and in teaching them how to put together a good argument, both in writing and in speech.

The last time I taught the course, I had one student who flummoxed me. She understood and was interested in the content and she had really great ideas. But she couldn't write. I mean, she really couldn't write. Half of her papers were not in complete sentences. She had these great ideas, but she couldn't figure out how to make a case for them. I could have helped her in office hours, but she, of course, never showed up. She was embarrassed by and terrified of her writing and I felt like she'd given up on it. The only thing I felt like I could do was to keep commenting on what worked and what didn't in her writing, and to keep urging her to come to office hours or go to the writing center. If I were regular faculty, there are actually more options. I could report to her adviser -- in this case, there were some extenuating family issues that were exacerbating the problem and the adviser might have been able to help. But as a grad student/adjunct type, I was told to recommend the writing center and walk away. I still wonder if she graduated.

The school I'm talking about actually uses very few adjuncts. The few that exist are primarily non-Ph.Ds teaching specific courses at the fringes of the university's mission (performance courses in my department fall under that category;
so do obscure languages that don't require more than a section or two). Mostly the adjunct courses are taught by graduate students. Until very recently (the last 3 years or so) the student teachers, at least in my department, were virtually unsupervised. I got a TA job first and I was lucky to be assigned to a professor who wanted me to get something more out of it than grading multiple choice exams. But once I got my own course -- a core course, I might add, for which I had to design my own syllabus and choose my own textbook -- I had no supervision at all unless I asked for it. And I did. I wanted as much feedback as possible. And because I was a grad student, I got it. Had I been an adjunct, I'm not so sure that would have happened. It seems like adjuncts bear the brunt of the blame, but no one wants to be bothered to help them improve.

Alison said...

I actually completely believe there are some people who shouldn't go to college. Certainly there are myriad jobs that don't actually require college education (even if they do want you to have a degree, which is a problem in itself), and if the student's entire goal is to get the degree (again, as distinct from the education) so that s/he can get the job, then no, that person shouldn't go to college, and shouldn't be required to do so.

Nancy said...

I think the more people who go to college, the more people who are able to think (even just slightly) more clearly and effectively, and hopefully, more critically, about the things that affect all of us: whom to vote for, how to parent children, why being civic-minded is important - and a million other issues. Maybe everyone doesn't acquire the same level of "education," despite their equal-on-paper BAs. But some ideas must percolate down in four+ years.

heidenkind said...

This book does sound worth a look, although the generalization about women adjuncts--wth??? Anyway, I've been an adjunct before, in art history, and felt the same way. You do feel isolated from the "team" of the faculty. And the students who fail really do fail epically! I can't help but wonder if giving grades just makes the situation worse.

As for there being certain people who shouldn't be in college, I hope what Professor X MEANT to say is there are people who are completely unprepared for college. They don't have any self-discipline, no idea how to study or take notes, and only the vaguest idea of how to put a paragraph, let alone an essay, together. But this is a bigger problem that isn't as easily dealt with as identifying people who "shouldn't" be college.

Alison said...

I would like to believe that 4+ years of college would teach some basic critical thinking, too, which would allow one to be a more informed citizen, etc. The problem is, I don't actually see that happening. The chief goal (and I'd say this is true for the overwhelming majority of my students) is to get the degree, so they can get the job after. The plan is to do the bare minimum of work required to get that degree. Yes, even for some of that majority, some writing skills and critical thinking eventually seep through, but not for nearly all.

I guess my criteria for "does this student belong in college" is "does this student seem to want to learn anything?" Of course, if that were the criteria, I'd be out of a job.

Jenny said...

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to teach basic writing skills. My freshman English teacher in high school made it her personal mission to teach everyone who came through her classes how to write a research paper. She broke it down step by step and graded an unbelievable amount of material from all her students at each step. It was such a pain in the ass at the time, but I could not have been more grateful throughout high school and college.

Amateur Reader said...

Uh, kittie, the pay of consultants is a little different than that of adjunct profs. Just a little bit different.

kittiesx3 said...

AR, sure, absolutely. I never indicated otherwise. I also give up a lot for my pay and that sacrifice may be something you or others aren't willing to do. Case in point, I leave next Sunday and will be gone for three weeks straight. I don't go to glamorous places (think of North Little Rock, Arkansas, Guernsey, Wyoming, Sheffield, Texas) . . . all home to someone but not to me.

It's a choice I made because I love the kind of consulting I do. I would assume that those who stay in teaching do so for other than just the pay.

As a quick aside, I did in fact teach, for five years. It's not the career for me and I chose to go back to school and retool. Your mileage may vary.

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth (kitties), the isolation does sound much the same. You have to be so very sure you know what you're talking about, because you really don't get many reality checks.

College students over the age of 21 are almost always better students, in my experience.

CSchu, and that was a very polite and politic comment ("full of high sentence") from my tenured friend!

FreshHell, yes the ripple effects are something the self-righteous "we'll do a national search and pick the best person for the job" types like to ignore. Because life really should be lived on a purely intellectual basis, you know.

Lemming, I will mail my copy of the book to you, and when you're finished, will you please send it along to Harriet?

Harriet, what you say about how regular faculty have more options was always a source of great frustration to me. It sounds like what you did with that person was the best you could do--it goes along with my philosophy of actually reading what a person writes. It's slow work. There's no flash.

Alison, I definitely agree with you that there are a lot of useful things to do that don't require a college degree, and that fewer people should be required to go to college. The introductory writing courses I've taught have always been required courses, and that's most of the problem.

Nancy, in an optimistic mood, I think that's what we all believe. Sometimes it's hard to sustain that optimistic outlook over years of adjunct work, though.

Jeanne said...

Heidenkind, you make a good distinction between being unprepared for college and more generally unsuited. I picked up an elitist attitude about those who are suited for serious intellectual pursuits in the book, but it wasn't addressed in terms of intellect, but in terms of economics.

Alison, again, the requirement is the problem. I think I can count on one hand the students who did more than the bare minimum in my 27 years of teaching required classes, and some of that was just temperament--they were unable to give less than 110 percent to anything they did.

Jenny, we all have missions at some point. I think the trick is sustaining such enthusiasm over an entire career.

Amateur Reader, one of the things I've talked to kitties (Elizabeth) about in regard to pay is that we're talking about haves (the tenured) vs have-nots (adjuncts, who often work year to year or even semester to semester--or as I did, quarter to quarter). Adjuncts are paid less than consultants, but if they work on a yearly contract, they know more about where their next meals are coming from than her kind of consultant does, because the jobs are precarious and can end abruptly. She gets paid more, but needs to bank it more, too, for those periods of unemployment.

Jeanne said...

And Elizabeth (kitties) I think the main point is definitely that we do this kind of work because we love it. I think of it as like being a writer who continually gets rejection notices but persists in writing because the work is what matters. If you love a thing, you keep doing it as long as you can.

Jenners said...

Mow that I read this, I realize I had quite a few adjuncts during college but never realized their role or hardships. Very enlightening review and book.

Jeanne said...

Jenners, There's another reason for more people to read this book!

Trapunto said...

For the record, Jeanne, I typed an enormously long comment in here earlier today, left the computer while I waffled about leaving it, came back, and somehow made it go poof.

A Freudian slip of the mouse-hand, perhaps.

All I meant to say is that I found your and Professor X's pictures of college writing teaching is fascinating and horrifying, and I am very sorry for sink-or-swim college freshmen.

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, Your comment reminds me that one thing I didn't say (actually there are lots of things I didn't say; I didn't comment on the parts about teaching literature at all) is that it's been a strange year to be out of the game, as my daughter completes her final year in high school, the one I used to think maybe a lot of high school teachers just didn't teach well. I have a much more well-rounded view of how those first-year college students get there, and what they're thinking.

It's kind of a waste. But what can I do?

Trapunto said...

So, when you say well-rounded, is it that you aren't thinking so much fault lies with the teachers?

Part of that long comment I didn't leave was about how I didn't go to Jr. high or high school. I was astonished to find myself at an advantage when I got to college in terms of writing papers, just because of being a reader.

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, yes; I used to blame some of what I now see as kids who have not been challenged on teachers with overly rigid rules.

Do you know what the high schooler's response is to a teacher saying "you can't write this paper the night before"?
"Challenge accepted."

I blame some of this on "no child left behind" which we refer to as "no child gets ahead."

Paul said...

I read this a few weeks ago and had to give myself time to think through some of its points. I've now read it again. I do think the book--and Jeanne's post--are only tips of the iceberg that is a big structural problem. But one of the take-aways from the book and the review is that a focus ONLY on the low wages and invisibility of the adjunct (called by writer of the book "not honest but smug")overlooks or fails to honor the enjoyment adjuncts get from teaching. So maybe there has to be two foci--one that deals with the deficits in the experience of being a part-time teacher at an Institution (the isolation, the lack of support, etc.) & one that honors the commitment to teaching and learning that adjuncts *share with* full-time teachers.

I will say that the notion that first-year writing courses should not be required is one that would be sure to vex curricular committees for more than a few weeks. And it would lead to less full-time and less part-time teachers. The size of this labor pool depends on the requirement that students take at least one (and at some schools, two or three) composition courses.

And I'm not sure doing national searches are the problem. It's the gradual erosion of funding for higher education and for any field not readily translatable into the logic and values of commerce.

Jeanne said...

Paul, I agree; finding a way to acknowledge that most adjuncts keep teaching only because they love it would go a long way towards eradicating the smugness.

Doing National Searches and requiring Composition courses are related to that point in that they are measures that necessarily remove attention to the individual from the equation.

Maybe hiring an adjunct should always be special and the treatment should be special: Here's someone who has experiences your full-time folks don't. Think of how music adjuncts are often experts on one instrument that the full-time faculty couldn't otherwise offer.