Monday, September 27, 2004

I’m the Teacher . . . (brief review)

I just finished an interesting if ultimately disappointing book by Patrick Allitt, professor of history and holder of the Arthur Blank Chair for Teaching Excellence at Emory University. I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom recounts the ups and downs of one course, an introduction to modern American history. Despite the stern title (designed, no doubt, to appeal to critics of higher education looking for a report from a hard-liner), Allitt’s account too often reveals him to be a happy panderer, dispensing “good” grades to work that by his own admission is outrageously bad while priding himself on his classroom rigor and his refusal to bend to his students’ pleas and demands. He seems not to see the contradictions and ironies in his situation. He insists upon good writing, yet appears unsurprised by the ungainly and error-ridden papers he receives all semester long. (And when a student turns in a much-improved essay, he laments that it isn’t as “entertaining” as an earlier effort that was filled with mistakes.) Grade inflation, he says, is endemic, but it’s too much trouble, he also says, not to go along, what with complaints from parents and pressure from deans. Thus he gives grades of B- to students who deserve (in his judgment) Fs.

I was also put off by Allitt’s breezy and inconsistent handling of procedures. His syllabus (included as an appendix) includes no policies regarding late work, yet he complains when he receives pleading, excuse-making emails from students who must feel that with no clear policy, their only hope is to try everything they can to move the prof. He quotes (and mocks) one at length, and gives us his reply, which never tells the student whether she may turn in late work. Another student, having turned in a wholly plagiarized essay, is given the chance to write another essay and receives “the lowest passing grade.” That’ll teach him, right? Where do grades come from, by the way? “Out of my head,” Allitt writes, “but in a rich social context.” Quizzes, according to his syllabus, count for 10% of the semester grade, but he gives only two quizzes all semester and decides at the semester’s end that “In reality, then, those ten are going to have to be distributed elsewhere.” I wonder what a student who took the syllabus seriously and studied hard for those quizzes might say about that.

I like Allitt’s habit of asking questions of his students and his emphasis on map-making and drawing as ways to understand the past. His descriptions of teaching with slides make me wish I had had a history prof who made significant use of visual materials. But too often Allitt’s attitudes suggest to me everything that I most dislike about academia, not least of which is the sense that college teaching is a really good racket: “It’s a great life being a professor: the benefits are major, the irritants minor.”

comments: 3

James Kabala said...

“In reality, then, those ten are going to have to be distributed elsewhere."

I feel ridiculous leaving a comment on a decade-old post, but I am glad that I am not the only reader who was taken aback by Dr. Allitt's nonchalant dismissal of the official grade percentages. Both as a student and currently as a teacher, I consider those values practically sacred.

Michael Leddy said...

James, thanks for reading and commenting. If no one else sees it, at least I have. :)

Michael Leddy said...

And I should have added: I too am glad to know that I’m not the only reader who was taken aback.