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English professor and study abroad pioneer celebrates 100th semester at UNC

Christopher Armitage, a professor in the English Department, is teaching his 100th semester at Carolina.
Buy Photos Christopher Armitage, a professor in the English Department, is teaching his 100th semester at Carolina.

Christopher Armitage, professor of English, will celebrate his 100th semester at UNC in spring 2017. 

Armitage said he started teaching at the University the same day he received his Ph.D. from Duke University, in 1967.

He said one difference he sees between 1967 and 2016 is that more students study abroad. 

"When I began teaching here, study abroad was virtually unheard of,” he said. “I was the pioneer in developing a summer program on ‘Shakespeare in Performance' in England."

Armitage has conducted the six-week Honors Summer Program in London and Oxford or earlier versions of it since 1975. Born in Manchester, England, Armitage received two degrees from Oxford University and another from the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

The Armitage Scholarship, which gives humanities students the opportunity to study at Oxford University as Visiting Students for one term, was established in honor of his commitment to take the study of English literature outside of the classroom.

He said during his 50 years, he has taught over 20 different courses, some of which he would be incapable of teaching today.

"I used to teach technical writing,” he said. “Seeing that I'm technically challenged as many persons of my age are compared to people like you who have grown up in front of a screen, I could not possibly teach technical writing today, because I constantly need help from the graduates who know how to do fancy things on the computer as I do not know."

Armitage said one of the most memorable moments of his career was when he was asked to play the part of founder William Richardson Davie for the University's 200th Anniversary. 

"I agreed to do this,” he said. “I wasn't surprised to hear that I would be required to wear 18th century clothing, including, for example, a three-cornered hat, because I was used to appearing on stage. I did not know — I was not warned — that I would be required to ride across the campus on a horse."

Armitage and Coach Dean Smith handed out saplings from the Davie Poplar tree to sixth grade representatives from counties across North Carolina.

Jared Williams, a senior chemistry and English major, has taken three classes with Armitage —  Literature of the Later Renaissance, Canadian Literature and War in 20th Century Literature.

Williams said Armitage creates a good mix of lecture and discussion in his classes.

"I really think we dive into what makes what we're reading good, what makes it quality,” he said. “I feel like in a lot of classes, you just look at the historical context and what the text means, but I think Professor Armitage is really good at diving into it and really making you appreciate what you're reading."

Williams said he enjoyed his classes with Armitage because he has a good persona in the classroom and does not take himself too seriously.

"He is very straightforward and says what he means but you can tell he has a really good humor behind it,” Williams said. “You can tell a lot of the things he says are pretty tongue in cheek."

Jane Thrailkill, English professor and co-director of UNC’s Health and Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Venue for Exploration lab, said she met Armitage in 2000 when she joined the English department. 

She said Armitage’s love of the English language makes him a spectacular professor.

"He is a wonderful person for undergrads to talk to and just has endless interest in and passion for literature and the spoken word and the compelling lyric and the interesting formulation," she said. "He is a teacher, an orator, a lover of literature and someone who always has a mischievous sparkle in his eye and a slightly conspiratorial whisper as he drops interesting observations in the hallway and then just moves on to whatever else he's doing."

Thrailkill said Armitage’s 100 semesters at the University are a result of his great teaching skills and his tenure.

"The latitude of tenure has allowed his extraordinary pedagogical gifts to have free range for many generations of UNC undergraduates,” she said. “Even as certain kinds of teaching styles go in and out of fashion, even as, within literary studies, the trends and the methods of analysis have changed, having tenure has really allowed Christopher to be the icon that he is at UNC in the undergraduate classroom."

Thrailkill said Armitage began teaching in the midst of a huge boom of higher education in the United States after World War II. 

“Christopher is a part of that wave of nationwide, federal commitment to the importance of higher education. He is a monument to a time when higher education, the liberal arts, the importance of literary study in the humanities were affirmed at the national and international level,” she said. 

“To me, that's the monument that is Christopher Armitage."

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