Politics & Policy

“I’m The Teacher, You’Re The Student”

Inside the classroom.

It’s not often that a student has the chance to test a former teacher, and so I seized the opportunity to put one of my former professors, Patrick Allitt, through his paces about teaching in the twenty-first century. Allitt is professor of U.S. History at Emory University, where he holds the Arthur Blank Chair for Teaching Excellence, and he has just published a new book, I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom, which chronicles his experience teaching an undergraduate U.S. History survey course to students who are by turns lively, ill-informed, impossible, and occasionally even insightful.

Christine Rosen: What prompted you to write a book about teaching and why did you settle on the title, “I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student”?

Patrick Allitt: I’ve always loved teaching, despite its challenges and occasional disappointments. To me it is the most important part of a professor’s life, and the most pleasurable. Friends and family enjoy hearing stories about what goes on in the classroom from day to day, so I thought there was probably a bigger audience for some of these tales. Although academic historians produce thousands of books every year, very few of them write about what we actually do. Plenty of literature on education appears every year too, but much of it is theoretical and has little relevance to what actually goes on in classrooms. I wanted to get away from debates about the canon and political corrrectness, to talk instead about the more mundane matter of responding to students who always come in late, pull hats over their eyes in class, don’t know how to write simple papers, neglect reading assignments, and won’t use the dictionary to find the definition of words they don’t know. Also to pay tribute to the lovely, hard-working, conscientious students who are eager to learn and who make the job such a pleasure.

The title refers to my belief that the teacher should take control in the classroom. The students come there not to be my friend but to learn history. I know it; they don’t, so it’s my responsibility to create conditions in which they can learn it. It is not a democratic or egalitarian situation. If they query my rules and regulations I sometimes say: “Ah well, I’m the teacher, you’re the student, so you must put up with it.” I’ve found that students are well-behaved and work hard if you make it clear to them right from the beginning that you have high expectations and high standards. They’re very eager (at least here at Emory) to get good grades, and will strive to meet my expectations so long as I’m not unreasonable.

Rosen: You note in the book that, as someone born and raised in Britain, you bring an outsider’s perspective to the study of American history. You also note the popular trend among university administrators of describing their undergraduates as “global citizens.” How would you describe your typical student’s understanding of and appreciation for American history? And should selective institutions of higher education such as Emory have as their goal the creation of “global citizens?”

Allitt: Being an outsider can be a hindrance but it can also be a help. When I first came to the U.S.A. I was constantly bewildered by references to events of which I knew nothing. I remember one of the first students I ever taught mentioning Paul Revere’s ride. I had no idea who Paul Revere was and had never heard of the event. He was scandalized. That’s an example of the disadvantages. On the other hand, when American intellectuals become gloomy about their nation’s human rights record, or about the economic hardships of the early industrial era, I have a built-in point of comparison, and am often able to say: “The Americans were far from perfect here, but look how much better they were than the British, the French, or the Italians.” Americans are often insular when they think about history. They compare their historical reality against the ideal (in which case there’s much to criticize) rather than against other historical realities (which would lead them to a more optimistic judgment). In these cases, being an outsider helps.

“Average” Emory students are very atypical by national standards, because they’re far more intellectually gifted and hard-working than most (they have average SAT scores of around 1375). Nevertheless few of them have a good knowledge of American history, with the possible exception of those who did well in Advanced Placement (in which case they are exempted from courses like the one I described in the book). Their historical knowledge is patchy and vague; their geographical knowledge is a great deal worse, so map quizzes nearly always fizzle out in helpless laughter as the students admit they haven’t a clue. The term “global citizens,” which I ridicule in the book, was nonsensical from the outset–a utopian puff from the administration. There’s no such thing as a global citizen. We all live in particular times and places, and although we can enjoy visiting other countries or even living abroad, we’re never going to be fully incorporated into other nations. I’ve been living in America almost continuously since 1978 but I still feel profoundly English, and other people don’t need to spend more than two minutes with me to realize that I’m not an American. Nothing wrong with that. Global citizens, were they ever to exist, would be dreadful people.

Rosen: Some of the more hilarious moments in the book are your descriptions of students’ attempts to write–attempts that yield misplaced modifiers, poor verb tense, and unintentional howlers such as “many did not survive the harsh journey west, but they still trekked on.” It is clear that you strongly believe students shouldn’t leave college without the ability to make a sound argument, bolstered by evidence, in understandable prose. But as Flannery O’Connor once noted, “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” What are your thoughts on this sensibility, especially given the avalanche of prose coming from personal weblogs, much of it from college students, and a younger generation’s preference for brief, text-message-style communication? Are universities properly emphasizing good writing?

Allitt: Writing is difficult and needs a lot of practice. This generation of students has been raised on multiple-choice tests and does them very well, because the format is familiar. By contrast, these students turn to formal writing only occasionally, and for them it’s a strange and alien task. No wonder their writing is often so poor. I don’t expect them to become elegant writers but I do want them to be able to express themselves clearly and simply, following the rules of grammar. In the last few years I have begun asking classes to write short assignments every week rather than just a couple of long papers. In this way I have many opportunities to go over writing problems with those who are struggling, and a chance to help them improve.

On the whole I’m in favor of e-mail, weblogs, IM, and text messaging. Even though these formats are negligent about spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization, they at least re-introduce students to the activity of writing. Students in the 1970s and 1980s, in the pre-email age, wrote even less; some of today’s IM-crazed kids will learn to love writing and then take it more seriously. Most universities let students get away with far too little writing. Luckily, plenty of professors within them are determined to hold the line and insist that students write well if they want passing grades.

Rosen: You tackle several issues in higher education that have been of interest to conservatives: political correctness on college campuses, grade inflation, identity politics, the strength of feminist ideas, and the transformation of students from learners to consumers, to name just a few. Do you think the conservative critique of higher education has had an impact on your students?

Allitt: Yes. Most of our students have absorbed the idea that education is a good thing and that they should aspire to being well-educated. Most are deferential to their teachers. They think of themselves as the inheritors of western civilization, who have to shoulder its burdens and protect it–they recognize that it is vulnerable. They respect learning, the arts, and good manners. In all these ways they are conservative.

It is true, however, that the consumerist mentality is widespread on this and similar campuses. The tuition is so high that students and their parents find it hard to bear any grade lower than A. Not only does it throw a roadblock on their path to medical, business, or law school, it also seems like poor value for money. I spend a lot of time explaining to students that the tuition did not buy them an A; it merely bought them the chance to attend classes in which they might work for the best grade they could earn. It’s unusual at Emory to find defiantly unorthodox students. As I mentioned in the book, I rarely teach female students who are willing to describe themselves as a feminists, because they think “feminist” means “angry, man-hating lesbian.” There are traces of political correctness on campus, however, mostly clearly apparent in students’ anxiety when the question of race comes up. They are painfully eager to take an enlightened approach and to be seen to be taking it. Lively discussion tends to be stifled when the question has a racial element.

Rosen: As one of your former students, I can attest to the appealing mix of erudition, enthusiasm, and wit you bring to the classroom. I can also bear witness to the many teachers who bring on an overwhelming desire for a nap when they commence lecturing. What makes a good teacher, and what advice would you offer students and their parents for locating the good ones on their college campuses?

Allitt: Bless you for your kind remarks. A teacher can’t be much good unless he or she is actively aware not only of the course material but also of the conditions in which it is being imparted, and the character of the learners. Liveliness, energy, visible signs of enthusiasm for the work itself, and variation in classroom activity are all essential. I think it’s also good to be sure that the students do not feel too comfortable in class–comfort is often the prelude to drowsiness. Better for them to feel ever-so-slightly anxious and on the edge of their seats. I achieve this mood by calling on students, by name, without warning, at any time during class. I ask them to define terms, to read passages aloud, to come to the board to draw maps and diagrams, or to explain to the other students, in their own words, an awkward issue or concept. I make them argue against their own beliefs (“David: make the case that democracy is a poor political system!”) and to look for analogies to historical situations in their own experience.

Parents lose their minds when it comes to looking for the perfect college for their kids. My daughter Frances is in eleventh grade now and the frenzy is rising all around us. Most of the energy expended in these college searches is wasted, because there’s no getting away from the fact that every campus is endowed with good teachers and bad ones. The particular teachers your child ends up with matter much more than the identity and reputation of campus on which he or she encounters them. A rumor mill or drum on every campus tells students, once they’re on-site, which professors are good and which are bad, which easy graders and which hard. The only way to be sure of studying with the good ones, however, is to visit their classes in the preceding semester and judge for yourself, bearing in mind that different styles suit different students.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and a senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.

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