In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

June 2008 Atlantic Monthly

The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a “college of last resort” explains why.

by Professor X

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

community college professor

Illustration by Marcellus Hall

I work part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English. I teach two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college. The campuses are physically lovely—quiet havens of ornate stonework and columns, Gothic Revival archways, sweeping quads, and tidy Victorian scalloping. Students chat or examine their cell phones or study languidly under spreading trees. Balls click faintly against »

bats on the athletic fields. Inside the arts and humanities building, my students and I discuss Shakespeare, Dubliners, poetic rhythms, and Edward Said. We might seem, at first glance, to be enacting some sort of college idyll. We could be at Harvard. But this is not Harvard, and our classes are no idyll. Beneath the surface of this serene and scholarly mise-en-scène roil waters of frustration and bad feeling, for these colleges teem with students who are in over their heads.

I work at colleges of last resort. For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé.

Some of their high-school transcripts are newly minted, others decades old. Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family. They work during the day and come to class in the evenings. I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.

My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses. For many of my students, this is difficult. Some of the young guys, the police-officers-to-be, have wonderfully open faces across which play their every passing emotion, and when we start reading “Araby” or “Barn Burning,” their boredom quickly becomes apparent. They fidget; they prop their heads on their arms; they yawn and sometimes appear to grimace in pain, as though they had been tasered. Their eyes implore: How could you do this to me?

The goal of English 101 is to instruct students in the sort of expository writing that theoretically will be required across the curriculum. My students must venture the compare-and-contrast paper, the argument paper, the process-analysis paper (which explains how some action is performed—as a lab report might), and the dreaded research paper, complete with parenthetical citations and a listing of works cited, all in Modern Language Association format. In 102, we read short stories, poetry, and Hamlet, and we take several stabs at the only writing more dreaded than the research paper: the absolutely despised Writing About Literature.

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  • What a waste of money. They sound like they are exchanging time(in school) for money(pay raises at work)I quess it's also a waste of time.

  • I read that article in the Atlantic. It all makes sense now. Some people are just better off not going to school, or they'll waste so much time and money. College preparation starts in middle school and ends in high school. I don't think it starts ten years after dropping out of high school and entering a "continuing education" institution.

    It's a really good article, I'm have to have found it as well.