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I'm the Teacher, You're the Student

In this trenchant and often hilarious guide, Patrick Allitt takes the reader along to his course in American history, offering a teacher's-eye view of the undergraduate classroom.

I'm the Teacher, You're the Student
A Semester in the University Classroom

Patrick Allitt

2004 | 256 pages | Cloth $59.95 | Paper $26.50
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Introductory Course
Chapter 2. Getting Ready
Chapter 3. Early Class Meetings
Chapter 4. The Discussion and Lecture Routine
Chapter 5. Educators' Excursions
Chapter 6. Technology and Technique
Chapter 7. Papers and Plagiarism
Chapter 8. Treats and Tribulations
Chapter 9. Radicals and Patriots
Chapter 10. The Conscious Professor
Chapter 11. Long Dry Spouts and Levels Unheard Of
Chapter 12. Mid-Term Misconceptions
Chapter 13. A Dry Pleasure
Chapter 14. Vietnam as Ancient History
Chapter 15. First Drafts, Draft Dodgers, and Deadlines
Chapter 16. From the Hitler-Stalin Pack to the Peace Treat
Chapter 17. Inflated Grades and Sentiments
Chapter 18. Finals and Farewells

Handouts and Exam Answers

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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.

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