Im the Teacher, Youre the Student
University professors are known to write books about all manner of curious and esoteric subjects. Strangely, though, almost none write about what they do every day: teach students.
Patrick Allitt, professor of U.S. history and holder of the Arthur Blank Chair for Teaching Excellence, has changed that with I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom.
A natural teacher and passionate advocate for good teaching, Allitt says he wanted to give readers a look at what really happens inside a college classroom. "There is a lot of interest and a lot of mystification about what goes on in college," he says.
So for an entire semester, he created a day-by-day account of one introductory-level American history class, from the first day to the final exam. The result is a journal-like chronicle that already has proved popular among other teachers, parents of college students, and the students themselves.
Allitt's teaching style makes for good reading. With warmth and wit, he describes some of his tried-and-true techniques: asking the students to draw pictures on the board, having them read long passages aloud, and making them write on exams until their fingers are stiff (he claims the multiple-choice test is the bane of American education). Allitt sometimes bemoans how little his students know, but he never doubts their potential or their worth. As the title of his book suggests, he believes a somewhat formal relationship between teacher and student is most conducive to their education; he has strict rules forbidding hats, eating, and cell phones in class. Yet his genuine affection for his students and his concern for their well-being is palpable on every page.
"Many of them are good company, and being in class usually puts them on their best behavior," he writes. "So I have a steady feeling of pleasure in being able to spend time among them, especially in a role that can actually win me their respect and interest."
Allitt brings a fresh perspective to American history, not only because he loves his subject, but because he is not American. Born in England and educated at Oxford, Allitt flew across the pond more or less on a lark after he finished school and spent a few months hitchhiking around the country with friends. He eventually applied to the University of California at Berkeley and earned his PhD in American history, going on to do postdoctoral work at Harvard. He came to Emory in 1988.
As the Arthur Blank/NEH Professor of Teaching, Allitt has conducted a series of seminars for faculty and graduate students aimed at improving and enriching their teaching skills.
Although he has written four scholarly books about American history, Allitt says I'm the Teacher was a more personal, soul-searching endeavor. "I love teaching," he says. "I wanted it to be a book about academic life, but without feeling academic. I would like readers to have the impression that college is intellectually challenging in the best way, and that even the best students still have a great deal to learn."--P.P.P.