I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: A Semester in the University Classroomby Patrick Allitt
What is it really like to be a college professor in an American classroom today? An award-winning teacher with over twenty years of experience answers this question by offering an enlightening and entertaining behind-the-scenes view of a typical semester in his American history course. The unique result—part diary, part sustained reflection—recreates
What is it really like to be a college professor in an American classroom today? An award-winning teacher with over twenty years of experience answers this question by offering an enlightening and entertaining behind-the-scenes view of a typical semester in his American history course. The unique result—part diary, part sustained reflection—recreates both the unstudied realities and intensely satisfying challenges that teachers encounter in university lecture halls.
From the initial selection of reading materials through the assignment of final grades to each student, Patrick Allitt reports with keen insight and humor on the rewards and frustrations of teaching students who often are unable to draw a distinction between the words "novel" and "book." Readers get to know members of the class, many of whom thrive while others struggle with assignments, plead for better grades, and weep over failures. Although Allitt finds much to admire in today's students, he laments their frequent lack of preparedness—students who arrive in his classroom without basic writing skills, unpracticed with reading assignments.
With sharp wit, a critical eye, and steady sympathy for both educators and students, I'm the Teacher, You're the Student examines issues both large and small, from the ethics of student-teacher relationships to how best to evaluate class participation and grade writing assignments. It offers invaluable guidance to those concerned with the state of higher education today, to young faculty facing the classroom for the first time, and to parents whose children are heading off to college.
"With a friendly intimacy, he invites the reader into his classroom, offering a rare glimpse into one of the most closely guarded spaces of the academy. . . . A wonderful model for anyone seeking guidance on the craft of teaching in higher education; highly recommended."—Library Journal
"A wonderful book. I heartily recommend it and tip my hat to the author."—Metromagazine
"A model for bridging the gap between being a teacher and a learner. It makes a significant contribution to the literature on teaching as a self-reflective model."—Teachers College Record
"Charming, and compelling."—Wall Street Journal
- University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
It's a great life being a college professor, and the best part of the job is the teaching. I've been teaching history to undergraduates for more than twenty years and have always loved it. We professors, however, are expected not only to teach but also to write books. The books we write to get tenure and advance our careers are about our disciplines, not about our lives as teachers. It's strange, isn't it, that of the tens of thousands of books produced by academics in recent years, hardly any have been about our actual work? As far as I know, there aren't any about the daily life of a history professor. I mentioned this odd fact to Peter Agree, my friend and editor. "I've often thought about writing an account of one semester's teaching, to record what actually happens in class." He encouraged me to try. I did, and here is the result, based on a history class I taught at Emory University, entitled, "The Making of Modern America: 1877-2000."
Professors disagree about the proper relationship between teachers and students, about how to lecture, how to lead a seminar, how to teach writing and use writing assignments, how to give and grade exams, how to counsel students, and how to evaluate class participation. I have opinions on all these subjects, and here I'll explain and try to justify them by putting them in the context of an actual college course. In addition to describing what happened with a typical class in a typical semester, I'll throw in some how-to advice and a few "What would you do?" ethical dilemmas based on situations that arose as the weeks went by. A few of these points were debated during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s but much of the day-to-day activity in class bears little or no relation to that debate's great controversies.
"I'm the teacher, you're the student." There are all kinds of implications. First, as the teacher, I know more about the subject than the students do, which is why they have come to class in the first place. They want to learn things they do not yet know. As their teacher, I have power over them because part of my job is to evaluate their work and give them grades. Second, some students are more talented than others and some are more hard-working than others, which means that their achievements—and their grades—will differ. Third, despite the steady temptation to make friends with the students, I have to resist it lest it compromise my judgment and impartiality. Professors and students must not be friends (friends don't give each other grades that have a vital effect on their futures). It's certainly OK to be friendly toward students, and to try to make studying a pleasure, but there must be no special friendship beyond a generalized affability. When you first become a college teacher, you're anxious to be liked and admired by the students, and you tend to approach them with an exaggerated sense of how much you can do for them. As a beginning teacher I had the fantastic delusion that I could literally change all the members of a class for the better, meanwhile creating a miniature ideal community in the classroom. Experience wears away the first few layers of illusion, but the tendency to want students to like you persists.
I don't mean that the students should dislike you, of course. If they like you, so much the better; it contributes to their wanting to come to class and learn. One thing I always hope to show students is that what at first glance seems dry, technical, and dull is really absorbing, exciting, and entertaining. There are moments when students, like anybody else, can be disappointing. Not most of the time, though; what makes the job such a pleasure is them. Treated well, they respond. Many of our students at Emory, with the right incentives, are captivated by learning things they did not know before, especially when they are presented in an interesting or engaging way. My whole teaching life has convinced me that nothing works better as a classroom technique or gets a better response than simple enthusiasm.
A book like this can, I hope, give teachers some useful advice, but the way to improve as a teacher is by actually teaching; hypothetical situations or abstract discussions are too different from the real thing. The best you can hope for, short of actually getting down to the job, is to learn a handful of principles, on the one hand, and a handful of useful techniques, on the other. Also, it helps to think of what your own favorite teachers did and to watch the best of your contemporaries at work.
Meet the Author
Patrick Allitt is Professor of U.S. History at Emory University, where he holds the Arthur Blank Chair for Teaching Excellence. He supervises workshops for Emory faculty interested in improving effective teaching skills. His previous books include Religion in America Since 1945: A History and Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome.
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