The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America

The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America

by Jonathan Zimmerman


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American college teaching is in crisis, or so we are told. But we've heard that complaint for the past 150 years, as critics have denounced the poor quality of instruction in undergraduate classrooms. Students daydream in gigantic lecture halls while a professor drones on, or they meet with a teaching assistant for an hour of aimless discussion. The modern university does not reward teaching, so faculty members at every level neglect it in favor of research and publication.

In the first book-length history of American college teaching, Jonathan Zimmerman confirms but also contradicts these perennial complaints. Drawing upon a wide range of previously unexamined sources, The Amateur Hour shows how generations of undergraduates indicted the weak instruction they received. But Zimmerman also chronicles institutional efforts to improve it, especially by making teaching more "personal." As higher education grew into a gigantic industry, he writes, American colleges and universities introduced small-group activities and other reforms designed to counter the anonymity of mass instruction. They also experimented with new technologies like television and computers, which promised to "personalize" teaching by tailoring it to the individual interests and abilities of each student.

But, Zimmerman reveals, the emphasis on the personal inhibited the professionalization of college teaching, which remains, ultimately, an amateur enterprise. The more that Americans treated teaching as a highly personal endeavor, dependent on the idiosyncrasies of the instructor, the less they could develop shared standards for it. Nor have they rigorously documented college instruction, a highly public activity which has taken place mostly in private. Pushing open the classroom door, The Amateur Hour illuminates American college teaching and frames a fresh case for restoring intimate learning communities, especially for America's least privileged students. Anyone who wants to change college teaching will have to start here.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781421439099
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date: 10/27/2020
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 145,929
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous books, including Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education and Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Table of Contents

Introduction. Personality over Bureaucracy: The Paradox of College Teaching in America
Chapter One. Between the Two Ends of the Log: Teaching and Learning in the Nineteenth Century
Chapter Two. Scholarship and Its Discontents: Teaching and Learning in the Progressive Era
Chapter Three. The Curse of Gigantism: Mass-Produced Education and Its Critics in Interwar America
Chapter Four. "Teaching Made Personal": Reform and Its Limits in Interwar College Teaching
Chapter Five. Expansion and Repression: Cold War Challenges for College Teaching
Chapter Six. TV or Not TV? Reforming Cold War College Teaching
Chapter Seven. The University under Attack: College Teaching in the 1960s and 1970s
Chapter Eight. Experimentation and Improvement: Reforming Teaching in the 1960s and 1970s
Epilogue. The Decade of the Undergraduate? College Teaching in the 1990s and Beyond
Appendix. Archives of College Teaching

What People are Saying About This

David Kirp

"In finely-honed prose, The Amateur Hour limns twentieth-century reformers' earnest, and ultimately futile, efforts to persuade colleges to take teaching seriously. It belongs on the bookshelf of everyone—professors and administrators alike—with a stake in how we're educating our undergraduates."

Julie A. Reuben

"This important contribution to scholarship will be welcomed by historians of education, scholars of higher education, as well as faculty and administrators more generally. It should also find an audience in the broader public because it explains why the college classroom functions the way it does."

Andrew Delbanco

"An entertaining and insightful account of efforts to improve college teaching. Zimmerman shows that today's issues—the promise (or menace) of technology, priority of research over teaching, grade inflation, course evaluations, political coercion, job insecurity—are not new but have a long history. A valuable book for anyone concerned with how professors can better serve students now as well as in the post-pandemic future."

Judith Shapiro

"An informative and engaging account of how teaching has been viewed—but not assessed—throughout the history of American higher education. Zimmerman tells a lively story of ongoing resistance to solving obvious problems while also offering suggestions for improvement, calling attention to the need for communities of teachers that can function as constructively as communities of scholars."

Scott Gelber

"No one has ever collected these stories in one place nor written about them with such compelling style. Full of engaging vignettes, this refreshing book does a terrific job of distilling the themes of amateurism and personalization while chronicling the history of our failed attempts to improve, or at least systematize, college instruction."

Debra Mashek

"With a historian's eye and a teacher's love, Zimmerman makes visible the oft-hidden—and largely entrenched—world of postsecondary teaching. A must-read for all who wish to untangle the complexities and contradictory themes that remain at the heart of American higher education. We can't improve what we don't understand; The Amateur Hour helps us understand."

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