Book of the week: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X

Professor X expands on the essay he wrote for The Atlantic in 2008, in which he questioned whether college is the right place for every 18-year-old in America.

(Viking, $26)

Give adjunct professors some credit, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. They’re apparently good at “delivering bad news.” In 2008, a shadowy adjunct calling himself Professor X emerged from the lower depths of academia with a wickedly funny account of his experiences teaching night courses on creative writing at two undisclosed institutions of higher learning. His essay, which appeared in The Atlantic, also carried a somber message: Perhaps not every 18-year-old in America is college material. Outrage followed—at a pitch suggesting that the author had proposed “the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals.” In expanding his essay to book length, Professor X has padded out his argument without watering down its message. This is “the work of a compassionate man” who simply wishes that U.S. colleges would stop taking money from people who don’t belong in them.

The padding hasn’t helped the professor’s cause, said Eric Felten in The Wall Street Journal. Rather than broadening his critique of academia, he’s shoehorned his classroom stories into a “fitfully engaging memoir that may be as revealing of the author’s shortcomings as it is of the schools’.” Professor X is still rightfully indignant that a college degree has become a de facto requirement for attaining even the lowest tiers of professional life: It’s beyond him why students who are woefully unprepared for college literature classes should have to struggle with King Lear in order to be allowed to become traffic cops or nursing aides. But, watching him flunk two thirds of his students while lamenting their failings, “one begins to wonder whether, just perhaps, part of the classroom problem is the teaching itself.”

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The condescension Professor X shows for his students does leave “a bad taste in the reader’s mouth,” said Michael S. Roth in the Los Angeles Times. When he considers whether his students may have been cheated earlier in life by overly compassionate female teachers, his credibility sinks lower still. Even so, it’s clear that he cares about his students’ welfare, and that he’s had some successes in the classroom despite long odds. If he’d shared more such success stories, he’d have undermined his case for making college more exclusive. But it would have been “moving to hear about those students who surprised him with their insights, honesty, and desire to learn.” And “I bet there have been more than a few.”

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