One of my former professors and current colleagues is retiring. He brought a present by my office last week: an e-mail that I sent him near the end of my first semester as a Ph.D. student at Mississippi State. The e-mail outlines my infatuation with James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and my plan to improve my teaching.

Several things struck me about the e-mail as I read it.  One was the love I gave Loewen’s book. I’m not nearly as enamored of the book now, but at the time, I was looking for something to inspire me. Lies My Teacher Told Me pushed that button at the time. It actually convinced me to drop the standard textbook in my U.S. history survey courses.

The second thing of interest in the e-mail is how painfully inadequate I was in the classroom that semester. That’s not surprising, since the department chair called me in a month before the fall semester began and offered me the opportunity to teach two early U.S. surveys as a teaching assistant. (At the time, MSU T.A.s taught two survey courses a semester on their own; essentially, we were instructors.) In hindsight, my first effort in the classroom was less than inspiring to my students, as I scrambled daily to write my upcoming lectures. I tried to cram in as much information as I could, convinced that I was changing the world by imparting historical knowledge. The realization of my inadequacy was, in part, what prompted this reevaluation of my teaching.

Lastly, the e-mail shows me how much I still need to improve in the classroom. I noted in the second paragraph, “My main problem is that I just lecture most of the time.” While I’ve improved in that area, that is still my tendency when students won’t talk. I’ve had some classes that have been great when it comes to discussion, but most of the time, students sit silent. My response? I lecture to fill the silence. This e-mail reminds me that I still need to work on this weakness.

Here, in all its glory, is the e-mail:

Pope E-mail–Loewen

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Lies My Teacher Told Me

  1. Mark,

    Don’t be so hard on yourself about lecturing. When I was in grad school I had a prof who assigned reading, then in class he would say “O.K., what would you like to talk about today?” Often there would be an uncomfortable silence. Then someone might say something to prompt a short discussion. I hated it. I thought I had paid to learn from the Prof who supposedly knew what he was talking about, not listen to some student who (it was usually obvious) knew little. When the discussion petered out there would be more silence. I thought, what a waste of my time!
    I also had a Prof who would break up the class into small discussion groups. I never thought that was particulary productive either. Yes, lectures can be boring, but not if the material and presentation are interesting.

    1. Hmm. My original reply disappeared.

      I agree about class group discussions, Bob. It takes an exceptional class for me to try it now. Too many of my students lack even a minimal knowledge about U.S. history to make it worthwhile..

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