More on the Basement of the Ivory Tower

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An essay in June's Atlantic Monthly, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," bemoans the difficulties of teaching developmental students. 

"Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes," writes the anonymous Professor X. "Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence."

And this, according to Professor X, points to a larger failure in our society:

"No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty."

The Atlantic essay is beautifully written and much of it rings true.  I've certainly participated in my share of grouchy end-of-term rants about impossible students.  But I think we're charged to avoid that absolute thinking about students who "will never pass," "can never write a coherent sentence," enrolled in classes "they cannot possibly pass."  If you think that way as a teacher, you're doomed.  We have to add the word "yet" to all of those clauses:  "cannot write a coherent sentence . . . YET."  "Cannot possibly pass . . . YET."  After all, where's the challenge in teaching students who could just as well learn on their own?  Why revel in the successes of students who have had spectacular home advantages before arriving in our classes and who go forth to connections, cushions, and opportunities far beyond the norm?  The truth is, we have little to do with those folks' life outcomes, even if the emotions of graduation day make them hug and thank us for teaching them the finer points of Hamlet. 

I'm with Holly, who writes on Community College EnglishBut what of the glorious optimism of the community college mission? (Pardon the violins...)  In the face of too many underprepared students and, probably, too many students whose ceiling-level abilities do not stretch to college-level, what do we say to that one individual student who wants to try?  

Not only that, but many have thought about the larger implications of admitting underprepared students to univerisity life.  We've been doing it in the USA since the first Harvard students in 1636 "had to be tutored because they did not know Greek and Latin well enough to study classical works written in those languages," according to Hunter Boylan's introduction to "Teaching Developmental Reading."  The 1960s and 1970s were all about reopening the universities to older students, to the poor, and to minority students. 

Boylan also points out that, given the declining size of this country's workforce and the increasing demands on it, "we can no longer afford to deny educational opportunity to those who might not yet be fully prepared to take advantage of it."  We need workers who can read, write, and think critically.  

We in academia are supposed to be the smart ones, the super-educated ones, the ones who can theorize about anything.  It's our job to figure out how to get all those underprepared students from incoherent sentences and certain failure to a decent level of success.  That might even be more important than the another metafictional analysis of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles.   (And before my fellow medievalists jump down my throat, that's my master's thesis I'm dissing.)


Just as fashion designers stretch their creative powers by putting exaggerated and outlandish designs no soccer mom would ever buy, and MBA students write business plans that most won't ever have the capital to implement, we stretch our intellectual powers by doing theoretical deconstructions of of texts no freshman comp student needs to read.

It certainly sounds as if Professor X's college needs an EL100: Basic Writing course, where students learn how to write paragraphs and maybe a few short personal essays. It also sounds like Mrs. L. should have known well in advance that her paper was not on the right track. Doesn't Professor X require students to submit a thesis statement and Works Cited page before they can submit the whole paper?

When I teach the research paper, I have students submit a "presubmission report," where they have to clearly state the topic of their paper, the opinion they are defending, and direct quotes from the sources they plan to use... it takes me less than a minute to grade that assignment, and students can re-submit it as many times as necessary. Of course, multiple submissions are harder to do if your class meets only once a week, and perhaps Professor X doesn't have the time to commit to checking e-mail during the week.

Some students exchange 10 or 15 e-mails with me in the process of developing a thesis... but if the student is asking for a lot of detailed feedback, I can tell the student, "That's a great question, please bring it up again in class tomorrow and we'll ask the class to help you figure out whether you're on the right track." I spend class time informing the students that if they want a quick response from me, they should send no more than a few lines for me to read, and they should phrase their question so that if I'm busy I can just answer "yes" or "no." Thus, "Is this a good source?" or "I think this new thesis is better than the old one. Am I on the right track?" will get an immediate response, but "Can you please read this really rough draft and tell me what I need to fix?" will likely get no response.

Thanks for calling attention to Professor X's essay. We've all had those days where we lie there in the morning looking for a reason to get out of bed, and marking those stacks of papers is rarely the answer.

Susan Jhirad said:

Although a trifle too pessimistic--most of our students do actually learn something and make progress--the author is telling the truth. We are starting, in most cases, at ground zero. Why? I don't really know, but somewhere along the line our students have never been taught to read and write.

Teaching composition at a community college is one of the most difficult, stressful and under-appreciated occupations. It is important for ed-bureaucrats to know what we are up against, as they come up with their never-ending plans for quick and easy results: rubrics, fast-track graduation rates etc. But I fear they'd have to spend at least one semester in our shoes to learn the lesson.

Bravo, Professor X, whoever you are. It was a brave piece.

Susan Jhirad
Chair, Department of English
North Shore Community College

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