blessings and curses

As I was sitting in the pews the other day, watching two of my daughters’ friends go through their bat mitzvah, I saw that the Torah portion was from Leviticus 26.  This passage described the blessings and curses that the Israelites had to look forward to, depending on how well they followed divine instructions.  And the code of behavior offered there had a pleasingly logical and predictable character to it: if you do x, you will be rewarded, but if you do not-x, you will be punished, over and over again, until you wither like a dry-blown leaf.  This was G*d’s grading policy, handed out at the beginning of term, and we have all been warned.

These passages, with their frank acceptance of the logic of retribution, reminded me of a very different scene of authority, obedience, and collective guilt that I found in the essay, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.”  This was an Atlantic article written by Professor X, an anonymous adjunct who teaches at “colleges of last resort,”–Northeastern community colleges and small private colleges of no particular academic reputation.  Professor X is, unsurprisingly , an unhappy soul, or better yet another Underground Man (he does work in a basement, after all), confessing his sins large and small to a largely indifferent world.

Like the first Underground Man, Professor X is a Disappointed Idealist, devoted to Literature, touchy about his adjunct status and career trajectory, and resentful of his students and their inadequacies.  When talking about their deficiencies, cluelessness, or, worst of all, indifference to him and his teaching, Professor X’s rage deepens, mixed with bewilderment at his own plight: why are they here? he wonders, and, more importantly, why am I stuck here with them?   Whether out of haplessness or malice, these no-goodnik students stubbornly refuse his best efforts to improve them. Most infuriatingly, they remain immune to his precious values or ideals, whether he is talking about the genius of James Joyce or the importance of MLA form.  He writes:

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these [required English 101] classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

As both sides seem to understand, their poor writing and lack of prior reading leaves them vulnerable, however they react to his teaching.  Consequently, they sit mute and motionless, slouched over their desks while he chatters on about topic sentences or James Joyce’s Araby.  And though Professor X complains about the poverty of their ideas about literature, his own discussions of literature seem as out of date and unimaginative as anything they offer him.  Clearly, something is going on in Professor X’s classroom, but it’s not teaching.

No, students like these are sitting ducks for his resentment, or maybe more like the shackled quail that Dick Cheney occasionally likes to hunt.  But one way or the other, these students are not going anywhere.  And so they take their Fs seemingly without complaint, while Professor X hands large numbers of failing grades to one class after another without much input from those either above or below him, in an atmosphere of deeply entrenched futility.  And despite all his nightmares (or fantasies) of New York Times headlines about his grading decisions, his failures takes place in the obscurity of a second-shift evening class, with the kinds of students he had never thought he would have to confront, day after day for the rest of his life.  Welcome to the basement, Professor X.

Now this is a depressing first-hand report, and I suppose the easiest response would be to follow Professor X’s own lead, and mock or condescend to him because of the helplessness of his position, and blame him for his inability to rise out of an exploitive situation.  This is the individualist, free marketeer position, and without a doubt his message that “not everyone deserves to go to college” will give a lot of comfort to those who already hold such views.  Here, let me try it on him: so why didn’t he publish a brilliant essay in graduate school, firmly grasp the brass ring, and get a better, less humiliating job?  Huh?  And the better, because it is the more charitable response is, because the educational “marketplace” (we know that it is more than a marketplace) does not rationally sort job candidates in a consistent way, any more than it sorts out the students he must confront.  The market does not render decisions, it delivers outcomes and consequences.  And Professor X sometimes receives a glimmer of insight about his shared plight with his students, though it seems to have disappointingly little effect on his own teaching:

But my students and I are of a piece. I could not be aloof, even if I wanted to be. Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up. I’m working a second job; they’re trying desperately to get to a place where they don’t have to. All any of us wants is a free evening. Many of my students are in the vicinity of my own age. Whatever our chronological ages, we are all adults, by which I mean thoroughly saddled with children and mortgages and sputtering careers. We all show up for class exhausted from working our full-time jobs. We carry knapsacks and briefcases overspilling with the contents of our hectic lives. We smell of the food we have eaten that day, and of the food we carry with us for the evening. We reek of coffee and tuna oil. The rooms in which we study have been used all day, and are filthy. Candy wrappers litter the aisles. We pile our trash daintily atop filled garbage cans.

So while I criticize Professor X for the self-pity that seems to have overtaken and disabled some important capacity in his face-to-face teaching, a temptation I have often had to fight off myself while doing my late-night or early-morning grading, I applaud the insights he is developing, dimly perhaps, about a life and career in the basement of higher ed.  Who knows better, after all, than an adjunct, jammed into an educational system whose contradictions he has been asked, personally, to solve, in a classroom full of people who seem to have no business being in college?  For some time now, Marc Bousquet and many others have been pointing out the anti-social and anti-educational consequences of the adjunctification of undergrad instruction, for both adjuncts and students.  Professor X should become exhibit A for such arguments.

And this question of blaming students takes us right back to the problem of authority and obedience I began with.  In my mind, the notion of grading-as-ranking almost always flips over and becomes a way in which we as teachers are reminded of how we have been ranked and sorted ourselves, into institutions and departments with reputations good, bad, or indifferent.  The temptation, at institutions like mine and Professor X’s, is to impersonate the kind of punitive, absolute authority that renders grades to its helpless students as if they really were blessings and curses.  The temptation to act out in this way, I think, actually gets stronger the further one is from any real or effective authority in one’s institution or profession.  But it seems important to me to prepare our graduate students for these kinds of ethical questions as they enter the profession, or “marketplace,” of teaching.



4 responses to “blessings and curses

  1. I’m glad you called our attention to this article, Dave. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching adult students, both in literature and in writing, and I’m familiar with the malaise that comes from teaching night classes in which the students are too tired from work and other obligations to devote themselves to engaged, passionate discussion and work. But I can’t help but agree with you that there is something going wrong here.

    One of those things is the pathetic lack of preparation most academics receive for the teaching of writing, especially to underserved students. Yes, it’s really frustrating to realize that many of one’s composition students don’t have even a bare mastery of syntax or even format. Most of them wouldn’t know where to begin in proofreading. And they get frustrated by their grades, even as we tell them they can revise papers, or that their work shows improvement. They get downhearted and fatalistic when they realize that, in the end, no matter how much they feel they’re devoting to a class, that they’ll never catch up to some ideal of writing they don’t really understand.

    But that’s all the more reason to find ways to break down the teaching of writing into rhetorical modes and tiny chunks. It’s also a good reason to find ways to engage their own senses of expertise and interests into those composition assignments. And it’s also why, in writing-intensive classes, we have to discuss texts in terms of what the writer is doing.

    I’m not sure who benefits from paper assignments that no first-year undergraduate could possibly write well. Research papers on complex, hard-to-research historical phenomena? I’m not even sure I could write a decent research paper on gun control or the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. How can I expect a student to do the same?

    One of the things I feel I’ve learned from trying out a lot (a LOT) of different kinds of writing assignments is that students who have not received enough instruction in rhetoric to do a particular assignment will write badly in every category of evaluation. A poetry analysis paper (which I used to assign to my Brit Lit students, assuming they’d all taken the required poetic analysis class) from an unprepared student will show multiple signs of writerly panic; they’ll misspell their own names, write non-sentences, ramble aimlessly, disregard punctuation, and so forth, with very little chance of being able to make a coherent argument about poetry. Similarly, I think this is what happens when we tell college freshmen to produce mature, fully-researched literary criticism or historical analysis. We expect their best writing to come when they’re struggling to produce something within our own expertise, without the benefit of sufficient education to do so? You ask a depressing question, and you’ll get a depressing answer.

    And it’s most certainly not because they’re “not smart” or “not motivated.” The thing I love about teaching adult students is that, even though they often feel some tension about intimidating subject matter, they know what they like and they’re happy to be in college. If one spends a little more time talking about how to write, doing small exercises, and giving sincere, supportive criticism (rather than trying to host a discussion of “themes” in Joyce—yuck), they improve.

    Not everyone will pass. Some will freak out and plagiarize, and others just need more practice and time. But failing 9/15 students in a class? I can’t imagine, but Professor X’s panic that something might be going wrong sounds pretty appropriate.

    Maybe I’m overreacting to his “I have to drop the hammer! I am the gatekeeper!” schtick. The best advice I got when I first started teaching writing was to think of myself not as an evaluator, but as a sort of weightlifting coach. Start small, add weight, encourage, motivate, give sincere advice, try a lot of different tasks, and make sure they know that trying again and again and again will always produce better results. They won’t get any weaker if they practice, and they won’t stagnate if they’re really working hard.

    Maybe it’s as simple as that—thinking of one’s students as hard-working, intelligent people deserving of compassion, respect, and good advice. That is, we have to think of them as people with a brighter future than they’ve left behind them. Returning students especially need this from their instructors, and they’re especially responsive to encouragement. The only students I’ve ever felt I couldn’t teach anything were those who refused to believe they could learn anything, and I’ve never met a returning student who came in with that attitude.

  2. Also, since I’m ranting:

    I have a very hard time with teachers who simply cannot imagine what it would be like to have some particular kind of incompetence. This is what teaching is, no? One concentrates on a student’s areas of weakness, tries to find her strengths, and attempts to use those strengths as a motivator to get the weaknesses in line. Maybe the problem is that, for many college English instructors, writing has never been difficult. They never had to focus on problem areas or learn how to write clear prose. Maybe they grew up in families that spoke perfectly grammatical upper-class English at all times, so the thought of writing a fragment or a dangling modifier is as foreign as choosing to steal a car or get tattoos.

    Is it possible that bad writing instruction has something to do with a failure of the imagination, and perhaps a narrow experience of the world? I was never a very good academic prose writer until I was well into my PhD program, so perhaps it’s easier for me to see students’ errors not as insuperable failures of mind and character. But surely most English instructors have struggled with some area of their education, like calculus or foreign languages. Can’t we ask ourselves questions like, “What was it I needed to learn how to solve differential equations? How did I overcome that block?” For me, it was having an instructor who pitied me enough to sit down with me and show me, step-by-step, in clear language, how to do it, and how to practice doing it. The problem for many English instructors seems to be that they don’t know how they’re doing it. It’s just done.

  3. Dave Mazella

    There are plenty of things wrong in Prof. X’s attitude toward teaching, I believe, but I think the major problem here is his own panicked embrace of authority, or gatekeeping as you call it, coupled with the complete absence of training or oversight that he received from his doctorate-granting program and his current employers. It’s really clear when you read between the lines that he feels completely set up to fail by his mentors as well as his employers, though this anger gets redirected towards the students, who to me are the least blameworthy people involved in this sad story.

    So I took this essay as exploring X’s own pathologies of and towards authority. But I also wondered what someone like this was doing in a classroom without supervision or direction. It says as much about his employer as it does about his own personality.

    As for the contempt for teaching manifest throughout this essay, I don’t get it. His mentors might be able to get away with behaving this way, but it’s no fun feeling like a failed teacher in an environment like the one he describes. He seems weirdly unreflective about the effects of his own teaching on his students, and unwilling to adjust to his audience’s needs and understanding. So yes, attention to rhetoric might help here. But he’d have to be willing to listen to what it would tell him to change in his own teaching.


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