04/15/2011 04:57 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2011

Trapped in Classroom Hell?

I started my college teaching career as an adjunct back in the 1970s. I was a summer composition instructor in New York at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus and I didn't mind the small salary because I was living at home.

I'd attended Fordham and in my senior year had been mentored by two dedicated, gregarious, hard-working professors, unofficially inducted into the club. My mother and her father had been teachers, so being in the classroom was as much a dream of mine as becoming a published author.

I was thrilled as an adjunct to be doing every single thing connected to teaching, including grading papers. Even grading papers, I should say, since that's what most teachers complain about. It was all new and exciting, and I was lucky because I felt the world was all before me. The academic world, anyway.

Professor X, author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, was not lucky when he started his adjunct career. He was forced into it because he and his wife had purchased more house than they could afford and he desperately needed a part-time job to supplement the income from the government job he already had. He picked teaching, the only thing he says he could do with a "worthless" MFA in Creative Writing. It was not a happy choice.

Just as he hadn't thought through his home purchase, he had only a dim understanding of what awaited him in the classroom. He expected his night students to be much better writers than they were, and also to benefit from his instruction more than they did. What he found was unprepared, under-educated students whose grasp of language was chaotic at best. The work they produced was marred by "yawning canyons of illogic and error."

Perhaps because he'd been an English major and in love with poetry, novels, and writing itself, he expected similar passion or at least curiosity in his students. It's hard not to think of the author as woefully unprepared in his own way, and he assesses himself and them as having screwed up in major ways. But isn't his mistake the greater one?

Professor X, who's taught at a small college and a community college for a decade, is passionately depressing about his students' deficiencies and the problems of a culture that pushes people to college when they shouldn't be there. He's equally impassioned and a real downer about the difficulties of writing and writing well. Though he finds some joy in the classroom, joy and writing seem almost antithetical in his worldview. That's as sad a discovery for the reader as X's own discoveries about what his students don't know and don't seem able to learn. I'm happy to say that writing--whether a blog or a novel--has always been enjoyable for me.

X not only dilates at length about the rigors of writing well, he also claims that all writers are afraid. Terrified, in fact. It's a dark assessment, and not every writer will agree. I certainly don't.

But you can't deny the power of this scathing report from the front lines. And whatever you think of him, you're likely to end up wondering as X does how Americans have come to view "college not as a consumer product at all, but as both a surefire, can't-lose financial investment, and even more crucial than that, a moral imperative."