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.