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Review: I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student May 13, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback

University campuses have seen many changes in the last fifty years: digital technology, new teaching methods, ‘political correctness’… But the change that really matters has been the extraordinary growth in student numbers. Take the UK and the US. About 60% of young men and women now undertake third-level education in these two countries, whereas in the 1950s this number was well under 10%, and in some regions and among some classes it was substantially lower.  The effect of this growth has been both catastrophic and beneficial: the standard of studies has fallen, but the number of those educated (albeit to a lesser level) has grown. What this means is that today most universities – with the exception of elite institutions – represent a continuation of high school rather than another kind of education (you need a doctorate program for that). For teachers there are two strategies. Either you accept, as Beachcombing has in his teaching, the reality of the situation and begin to do high-school ‘plus’ courses (with space for the best students to show their mettle); or you, like Cu Chuliann, fight the waves and continue to teach university level courses, a generation after universities, as our parents knew them, ceased to exist.

Patrick Allitt is one of the warriors who fights on. And, in his book, I’m the Teacher You’re the Student (Penn State 2005) he describes one semester at Emory University (Georgia) in a witty diary of his day-to-day pleasures and battles while sharing history with students. It is an outstanding read and articulates the experience of a ‘university’ level teacher, put together by someone who is clearly very good at what he does. (In a strange way Beach is an alumnus of PA. He once listened to an audio course the good professor had created and was absolutely charmed: even the sound engineer could be heard laughing at some points).

We have the exam howlers, the sociology of late homework (the shift from dead grandparents to broken computers), plagiarism, evaluations, reading assignments and the difficulty of understanding whether students have actually looked at these assignments. But this book also comes closer than anything Beach has ever read to, let’s call it, the metaphysics of teaching: the way, for example, that an unkempt rather intimidating bunch of late teens in the first lesson become a cohort of promising young men and women by the end of the course and the object of affectionate memories.

How precisely does PA fight the waves? Well, first of all he rejects the natural camaraderie of the classroom, a camaraderie which is open to anyone teaching American students. This is summed up in that title ‘I’M THE TEACHER, you’re the student’ (‘my station and its duties’).

Second, PA uses images and music and extensive readings to examine different periods of history, while demanding a certain standard of knowledge of maps, dates etc. In doing so he rejects text books and naff power points. But he also deprives students of a corpus that they can study: the hardest-working student will have no guarantee that they’ve effectively covered everything, notwithstanding lecture summaries handed out in each class. Here there is a bias towards ability rather than effort.

Third, PA cares about the execrable English of his students. This means explaining that not all books are ‘novels’, raging about tense sequence and daring to name the pluperfect. More about PA’s English lessons in a moment.

The result of this trio is that students get lower grades than they might expect from a  history class. But, in recompense, they come closer to the essence of history and perhaps get to improve their written English into the bargain. Does this make PA a hero for the ages or an intolerable reactionary? Well, probably both. He certainly doesn’t qualify as a high-school plus teacher.

Let’s take now the example of English style, something that fascinates Beachcombing because it is the area where Anglo-Saxon education has so conspicuously failed; not helped by the insane orthography of our mother tongue. Beach has taught about six hundred American university students in the last five years. Of these perhaps fifty wrote good English. About two hundred and fifty could get by. And the other three hundred were an indictment of US secondary education: their high-school English teachers deserved a little gentle, non-therapeutic lynching.

In those five years Beach has never marked a student down for bad grammar or spelling. And, ever the pragmatist, he only troubles to correct English grammar and spelling when students hand in drafts for final papers (few do) as, in one-on-one encounters, he (believes he) can make a difference. He also had one experience of taking a student through a special studies paper, over a semester, where he was able to revolutionize said student’s prose: she’s now working in publishing…

PA on the other hand holds his students to far higher standards. The Saxon genitive is defended (the Germans do without the apostrophe so why can’t we?), tense sequence matters, good spelling is celebrated… But sometimes perhaps PA wades a little too far into the water in his sword-fight against the waves. Take this passage by PA’s student X and judge for yourself how well it is written.

‘In a time when the United States was vying to be a colonial power and prove supremacy in the western hemisphere, Cuba’s cry for freedom from Spain was prefect. At the first sight of risk for Americans and their property, McKinley consented to send in the troops. Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy, having been steadfastly urging the war and craving to fight in it, rather quickly organised a team of skilled volunteers to fight under his command. When called, they joined the regular cavalry and infantry units in embarkation in Cuba. Some units were, to their disappointment, denied leave for lack of room.

If we could create an education system where the average student was able to write to this standard then it would be time for fireworks and champagne. PA is, however, damning.

‘It could be worse. [The student] covers a lot of points quickly and is grammatically sound – he even uses the apostrophe correctly. But like most students’ writing it shows every sign of inexperience. There are too many participles (‘vying’, ‘urging’, ‘craving’). There are too many adverbs and adjectives (‘steadfastly’, ‘rather’ [in rather quickly], and ‘skilled’ should go). The first sentence should begin with At rather than In, and he should tell the reader when this ‘time’ was by using a date. [There follow another eleven sentences of critique!]. I do not write any of this nitpicky criticism of the paragraph on the paper – I can’t possibly devote that much time to every paragraph, nor do I want to crush students to the ground with impossible high demands and my own sometimes quirky editorializing. On the paper I write an ‘S’, for satisfactory, mark a couple of grammatical infelicities further on, and leave it at that.

An ‘S’! What must be remembered is that most academics in the humanities and particularly in the social sciences write prose that is little better than the passage quoted here!! Fifty years ago it would have been worthwhile taking student X to one side and giving him some advice (while complimenting him) because, back then, there were only ten students in the class, and they were all bright and motivated. You might even slip your arm in his and invite him over to the hall to take some port and discuss Roosevelt’s opportunism. Today, the high-school plus teachers have other battles to fight: the wyrms of administration, the dragon heads of mandatory courses, not to mention the thrashing snake tails of indifference.

Beach is always looking out for unusual books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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13/05/2012: KMH has a radical suggestion. ‘The university concept must continue to change and change profoundly. Here is one future change I think will eventually happen at the undergraduate level: separating the teacher from the tester. Real learning occurs in an environment friendly to learning. This is where the teacher is the ‘friend,’ mentor, and advisor for his students, rather than also acting as a final judge in assigning grades to those in his courses. Imagine a separate testing facility for each university where students go to be given the standard tests (several per course)  appropriate to the courses they are taking. The testing faculty does not teach these courses but it does make up the tests (or acquires them from outside sources) and grades the papers. The standards for grading are set in advance and there is no grading “on the curve.” It is then possible for everyone in a class to get a higher grade. This separation allows the teacher to gain better rapport with his students, and because grading on the curve is not allowed, students can also be more helpful  each other. The final grade is based on testing results with accompanying remarks by the teacher attached to the grade itself describing classroom participation, general attitude, the student’s potential, etc. I hope I am making the grade.’ Thanks KMH!