Professor Allitt's Mysterious Enthusiasm for Teaching Undergraduates

I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom
By Patrick Allitt
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005

Professor Allitt, who holds the Arthur Blank Chair for Teaching Excellence at Emory University, begins the preface to his memoir of a semester of college teaching tantalizingly: “It’s a great job being a professor, and the best part of the job is the teaching.” I expected him to report reveling in the give-and-take of Socratic dialogues with smart undergraduates. After all, Emory is one of the most selective universities in the United States. But this chronological account of 42 consecutive meetings of his history course at Emory, “The Making of Modern America: 1877-2000,” provides scant evidence of smart undergraduates. Professor Allitt’s students, although they must have gotten high enough grades in secondary schools to be admitted to Emory, came across as too ignorant to participate in meaningful dialogue. One, having never read a novel, believed that “novel” and “book” were synonyms. In addition to these misapprehensions, Professor Allitt faulted the weaknesses of his students on written assignments:

“Certain errors are so common as to be almost universal. The first one is that almost no student really knows how to construct an argument and then deploy information to support and substantiate it. Usually student papers describe what happened, more or less, then throw in an indignant moral judgment or two before stopping abruptly. . .

“Second, they almost all use unnecessarily complicated language. Another of my endlessly repeated remarks is, ‘It is harder to write simple prose than to write complicated prose. Aim for simplicity.’. . .

“Third, they make elementary grammatical mistakes. One is the confusion of singular and plural in the same sentence. For example, ‘The average American would stop at nothing to beat the Japanese and they were determined to avenge Pearl Harbor.'. . .

“Hardly any students know the past participle of the verb to lead. In a group of thirty papers twenty-five will say something like this: ‘Sherman was a tireless commander and he lead his army to victory.’. . . [E]ven rarer is it to find students who know the rules for apostrophes. Picking up at random a paper that the student failed to collect, my eye at once falls upon this sentence, ‘American’s eagerly snatched up all the manufactured good’s they could afford.’ Confusion is absolute when it comes to its and it’s and on the question of whether the apostrophe goes before or after the s when making possessive and plural a singular noun that ends with s.”

Professor Allitt tried to correct errors in spelling and grammar. Students were by and large ungrateful for his efforts at remediation.

“Students bristle when you point out grammatical errors. One of the commonest irritable statements I get from those whose grades are rather low is, ‘This isn’t an English course. You shouldn’t grade me down for grammatical mistakes.’”

I shall return later to the mystery of Professor Allitt’s enthusiasm for teaching. First, let me describe the course itself. Professor Allitt recapitulated his class discussions as he proceeded sequentially through the course: what he told the class about salient issues like the significance of the frontier, what he asked individual students in class and how they replied, the papers he assigned students to write during the semester, including excerpts from them, the haggling with students over grades, the excuses students gave for not turning in work on time, the exam questions he made up, the occasional cases of plagiarism. At the first meeting of the class on a Wednesday at 10:40 AM--a time when he was confident that the 39 enrolled students would be “cheerful, alert, and talkative,” as they would not have been for an earlier class--he arrived early with a carousel containing fifteen slides that he planned to use to illustrate points in his remarks. He handed out a no-nonsense syllabus, distributed note cards on which students wrote their names, phone numbers, and email addresses, and called the roll. He always took attendance, which is not universal in college classes, but after the 6th or 7th meeting of the course, he had learned to match names and faces so that he could take attendance without calling out names.

His was a “no-nonsense syllabus” because in it Professor Allitt spelled out the meaning of his refrain, “I’m the teacher, you’re the student.” He expected regular attendance, although he did not always get it, no eating, drinking, or wearing hats in class, reading the weekly assignment and being prepared to respond to questions about it, handing in on time the two papers for the course. As the title of his memoir made clear, Professor Allitt believes that an effective teacher cannot be a pal to his students; they are not his equals. He knows more than they do about the subject he is teaching, and he regards an informed opinion superior to an ignorant one.

He enforced the more academic of these expectations by his grading system: 10 percent for grades on unannounced short quizzes given at the beginning of some classes, 26 percent for class participation, 15 percent for the mid-term, 24 percent for the two papers, and 25 percent for the final exam. The 26 percent for class participation depended not only on regular attendance but also on reasonably correct responses to Professor Allitt’s questions. (He called on students whether they wished to speak or not and strove to shut up students who would babble on endlessly if he let them.) This approach must have been a shock for students who believed that their ideas were as good as those of the professor and who didn’t feel that he should compel them to do anything they didn’t want to do.

Take the matter of not wearing hats. Professor Allitt reminded students to remove baseball caps, usually turned backwards, that they probably wore to their other classes. He did not encounter outright refusals to follow this rule, but he reported “mutinous stares” and demanding questions.

“Sometimes one of them will ask, ‘Isn’t up to us, as students who have paid the fees, to listen or not listen as we choose, and to do it dressed as we please and in the position we choose?’ To which I respond, ‘I can’t make you listen but I can at least make you look as though you might be listening, rather than accepting the aggressive detachment implied by eating, drinking, and the hat. . . I am the teacher, and I am doing everything I can to put you in a position conducive to learning.’”

One day a female student challenged him when he asked her to take off her hat, saying that she thought this rule was only for male students. “Don’t you believe in gender equality?” he asked. “Not with this,” she replied. Ultimately Professor Allitt prevailed; she removed her hat.

By the 23rd meeting of the class, the day of the mid-term, students had been assigned parts or all of several books, including Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and there had been an extensive in-class discussion of The New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the 21st meeting of the class. Professor Allitt was disappointed, although apparently not surprised, by an answer to his question about the historical significance of Theodore Roosevelt.

“Theodore Roosevelt was the author of the Rough Riders and also the president during the Depression and up to the Second World War. He led a group of soldiers from all around the country to fight with him in the Spanish-American War of 1898. He enacted the New Deal; he had gotten polio at the beginning of his political career and was paralyzed from the waste [sic] down.”

That was a reply to a question on the mid-term. On the final exam Professor Allitt detected equally erroneous conclusions. Despite his discussion of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, here is what one student believed: “John Kenneth Galbraith ran for president against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election and lost.”

Professor Allitt reported on creative and uncreative excuses that students made for failing to come to class, sometimes for a week or more, or for not submitting papers on time, e.g., computer or printer breakdowns. (On one occasion a male student arrived a minute before the deadline for submitting a 24-hour take home exam, staggering under the load of the components of his desktop computer in order to establish his inability to print the exam that he claimed to have finished.)

Emory undergraduates expected high grades. Along with the luxurious cars that Professor Allitt observed in the student parking lot--in contrast to the older, more modest vehicles in the faculty parking lot--they felt entitled enough to top grades to be forthright about demanding an explanation for less than As.

“The aftermath of distributing grades every semester…is a series of visits from the students who didn’t get straight As. . .’ I’m a straight-A student. Why didn’t I get that A?. . . I’ve always found it difficult to stand up to their browbeating.”

Professor Allitt tried to forestall such browbeating by giving higher grades than students deserved. “Look at the students I’ve been teaching this term. In an ideal world I would give about a quarter of them F’s. Why? Because they have no aptitude for history, no appreciation for the connection between events, no sense of how a historical situation changes over time, they don’t want to do the necessary hard work, they skimp on the reading, and can’t write to save their lives. That’s grounds enough for an F, surely.”

In fact, Professor Allitt gave only one F, no Ds, and a few Cs to those he described as “hard cases.”

Notwithstanding his accounts of interactions with ignorant, lazy, and occasionally duplicitous undergraduates, Professor Allitt’s tone in I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom remained consistently upbeat. He insisted that teaching undergraduates is gratifying. Maybe Professor Allitt’s Panglossian enthusiasm is the triumph of hope over experience. Or perhaps, although he didn’t show the reader bright students at Emory that he had reason to be proud of, he did have some who developed intellectually under his guidance. In the absence of such illustrations in the memoir, however, his enthusiasm for teaching remains mysterious.

Jackson Toby is a visiting fellow at AEI.

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