February 16, 2004

The English professor

By Eric Rangus

Patrick Allitt doesn't sound like a professor of American history. He sounds more like a London-based news anchor.

A member of Emory's U.S. history faculty since 1988, Allitt's background is quite dissimilar from many of his contemporaries. A native of Derbyshire in central England, about 120 miles northwest of London, Allitt didn't visit the United States until after he graduated college. Before he came here, Allitt had never heard of Paul Revere or read Dr. Seuss--staples of an American upbringing.

Although he has lived in the United States since he was a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley since the 1970s and '80s, Allitt retains his distinctive British accent.

"There is a nervous laugh from the students right at the beginning of class because it seems so incongruous," said Allitt, professor of U.S. history. "Usually over the next few classes students will ask me whereabouts in England I come from, and tell me about trips they've made to Britain. It isn't long before we've forgotten about it because we're all focusing on the content of the course. I think once you get to know somebody, you become less aware of something that at first seemed glaringly different."

While Allitt was unaware growing up of some of the nuances of American life, he has a healthy respect for the country.

"I was born in 1956; my father and most of his generation were World War II veterans and were very aware of the role the Americans played in defeating Nazism," said Allitt, who earned his B.A. in British and European history from Oxford University in 1977. "My generation of English kids had a terrific admiration for America. We loved the technology, we loved the music and the popular culture, and also believed that, 'If there's a problem, the Yanks can fix it.'"

So, after graduation in 1978 at the age of 21, Allitt came to America. He hitchhiked around the country--from New York to California and back again, even stopping for a bit to work on a farm in Arizona.

"I totally loved it," Allitt said about that first trip. "I was very eager to get back and find out more about America, if possible while actually living there."

After returning to England, Allitt applied for graduate school at Berkeley and was accepted. He studied American history and became fascinated by religious history, in part because of his experiences while hitchhiking.

"So many people in America were actively religious and it was integrated into everyday life," Allitt said. "I remember the first time I was here, I'd see a roadside sign that said, 'God is Wonderful: Oil Change $20.' Just as conversation, people would ask, 'Have you taken Jesus as your personal savior?' Something like that is unimaginable in Britain, whereas here it was a way of making friends and starting conversation."

Allitt's dissertation explored the ties between Catholics and conservative politics in America after World War II. He later expanded it into his first book, which was published in 1993. He wrote three more books tying together religion and history, the most recent being 2003's Religion in America Since 1945: A History (Columbia University Press). Considering the subject, a book with that particular title might be expected to weigh as much as a phone book. However Religion in America is a relatively slim 298 pages.

"It's really like a long, interpretive essay," Allitt said. "It tries to cover a lot of ground--20 or 30 major subjects--but it doesn't pretend to be comprehensive or objective."

Allitt's other book, to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press later this summer, marks a stark departure from his previous four books, all of which have dealt with some aspect of religion.

I'm The Teacher, You're The Student is a first-person, present-tense journal about one teacher's (Allitt's) experiences with one class (a previous history class the author prefers not to name for privacy reasons).

"Every day I wrote down what happened in class," Allitt said. "How I approached the lecturing, how the students did or didn't respond, how class discussions went on, how I dealt with problems that came up, what I did with students who wouldn't come to class, what I did with those who were always late, what I did with those who had personal and emotional crises, how I helped them with their writing. And then I also speculated on the nature of the problems that come up."

Allitt said several Emory colleagues have read the book and enjoyed it. The subject matter has stirred conversation among them, as well. "Some people have said, 'You handled this problem this way; I would handle it that way,'" Allitt said.

That Allitt would one day write a book about teaching should come as no surprise. He is now in his fourth and final year as Emory's Arthur Blank/NEH Professor of Teaching, a position he called "an open-ended challenge to look for ways to improve teaching on this campus." And he hasn't sat back and let the teachers come to him.

Allitt runs a series of seminars for faculty and graduate students--10 faculty each fall, 10 grad students each spring--in which he and a research assistant film them teaching their classes. After which they get together for a series of lunch meetings to discuss the particulars.

"What I say to the professors and the graduate students is, 'Choose the worst 10 minutes,'" Allitt said. "Don't choose a day when everything is going great. Choose a point when you know something is wrong. Then we can advise you and give suggestions for how you deal with whatever problem there is. Like, how do you deal with your surprise discovery that students simply can't understand what you're doing?"

Allitt and research assistant Marni Davis also produced a videotape in 2002, "Teaching at Emory: The Experts Speak," in which dozens of Emory students were asked to discuss a variety of subjects including the strengths and weaknesses of teaching on campus, whether teacher evaluations were useful, and if they had any ideas for reform.

The students interviewed were honest, helpful and creative (although one student's idea for reform, "getting rid of the business school," probably isn't going to happen).

Allitt's teaching is not limited to the Emory campus. Since 2001 he has recorded several series of educational audio and video lectures for The Teaching Company, a Virginia-based company that teams with university professors to produce continuing education materials for adults on a wide variety of subjects.

His most recent work involves 36 half-hour lectures (of a series of 84, produced with two other lecturers) dealing with American history from 1870 to the present. Previous work includes 24 half-hour lectures on American religious history and 36 lectures covering Victorian Britain.

"The videos are done in a studio designed to appear like a book-lined study," Allitt said. "It's very much like the beginning of Masterpiece Theater." Some clients receive the video version of Allitt's lectures, while others opt for audio recordings.

Allitt often performs his lectures--frequently in one take--in front of a small studio audience of Teaching Company clients. Their presence warms up the studio, he said, and makes his job easier.

Not that the viewers are easy on the speaker. "'He gave the wrong date of the Irish famine,'" Allitt quoted some of his inquisitors. "'He said imprecise when he meant incorrect,'" he said, offering another example. Whenever changes need to be made, Allitt simply records a new word or sentence and the fresh version is dubbed in.

Allitt's video work has led to more opportunities. He frequently receives letters and e-mails from people who have seen his work. Some are positive, some critical, and nearly all have questions. Many also contain invitations to lecture.

This week Allitt will attend the fifth annual History of Medicine Symposium at Mercer University in Macon, where he will deliver a talk on Victorian medicine, a subject of one of his "Victorian Britain" lectures for the The Teaching Company.

"Most of the presenters are going to talk about the development of medical technologies," Allitt said. "Mine will be about the living conditions of Victorian England--how people got sick and why, and what doctors and nurses could do about it. I would never claim to be a medical historian, but I'm looking forward to it."