What Makes a Good Professor
The best professor I ever had was not afraid to throw an eraser at the sleeping student. He was the perfect combination of passion, personality, and performance. Not only was he passionate about the subject, but also the students. He posessed an open, understanding, and approachable personality. And he was a truly capable performer in the classroom as well as his research.
Such a flawless fusion of qualities is seldom found in one person. Yet it is still helpful to be aware of the merits that make a good professor. Not every professor will make you laugh or give you an extension on your problem set. But instead they may challenge you and make you learn in ways you never imagined.
Before becoming a professor, a scholar essentially decides that one single subject is more important than any other. Professors usually dedicate their lives to a narrow focus, so it is fair to assume they are passionate about it.
Unfortunately, the topic of a class is often much broader than the professor's research focus. While a class might be on the American Civil War, a professor's particular expertise might only cover the Tariff of 1828. Certainly the professor will offer up a passionate lecture on his favorite topic, but the remainder of the class could suffer from a lack of enthusiasm.
A great professor will complement the passion for his subject with a passion for teaching his students. The motivation that drives him to master a topic will also be channeled into building his students' interest and helping them understand the material. It is evident when professors put a great deal of effort into their lectures and discussions, even when the topics are "below" them. Seek out those professors that teach on their most dear subjects, but are also enthused about the class as a whole.
Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for a professor is engaging with students. She has been tasked with transferring a significant body of knowledge to a group of students. Yet the forum to present this information is often not the most ideal. Classes primarily fall in two categories: lectures and seminars. Each requires a different approach.
The distinguishing characteristic of a lecture is that a professor tells the class information. Lectures can range in size from a few students to hundreds. But a lecture mustn't be static merely because the transfer of information is primarily one-way. Instead professors should be constantly involving and gauging the class. Asking questions, allowing questions to be asked, surveys, games, etc. are all ways to make a class more interactive. All of these suggestions can still be accomplished in lecture halls of 500 students. And when a professor must cover large amounts of material, she should constantly be watching for understanding and class consciousness. After all, it is clear when the Internet has become more interesting than the lecture; a professor should not allow that to happen.
In seminars, professors discuss the material with the students. But, they must balance the amount of information to give versus how much to let the class determine on their own. Sometimes, a professor will sit and lecture to the class, defeating the purpose of the format. Other times, a professor will sit idly by and let the class ramble about incorrect observations and off-topic musings. A professor must be able to keep the class focused and informative while still allowing students to share opinions and discover for themselves.
A great professor will command the classroom. Not only will she captivate the students but involve them as well.
In college, the majority of learning occurs outside the scheduled class periods. Whether reading, researching, writing, or solving, more time is spent working than consuming. Likewise, a professor shouldn't just disappear at the end of class; he must remain accessible.
Almost every professor is required to hold "office hours." But not every professor emphasizes and encourages students to attend these periods. Professors will often schedule their hours at inopportune times and be unwilling to make arrangements to meet students at other times. These behaviors are unacceptable.
The best professors will ensure that they can always be easily contacted. This is not to say that students should expect immediate responses from their professors. Rather, holding sensible office hours, responding to emails, scheduling individual meetings, and staying after class are all reasonable expectations. Some professors will go the extra mile--answering emails in the middle of the night or inviting students on their morning jog. Professors such as these are not to be taken for granted.
Fair and Open
The last qualities that truly distinguish the good professors are fairness and openness. Professors are very much authority figures. They are generally the authority in their discipline as well as the clear authority in the classroom. Periodically a professor will go on a perceived power trip. Abuses such as these can undermine the very openness that binds the academic community.
Professors must strive to be fair in all regards. They should be fair to all students and treat them equally. Favoritism can be equally damaging to the preferred and the ignored student. Professors should be fair in the work they assign. Reasonable deadlines must be given and consideration of the students' other classes should be taken into account. Finally, a professor must be fair in grading. If a professor has a problem with the established grading guidelines at a university, he should not take out his frustrations on the students. It is unwarranted to punish students for taking the class by having exceptionally high expectations.
Along with fairness, a good professor is open to his students. If a student writes a paper with an alternative viewpoint, the professor must grade it on its arguments and merits, not the viewpoint itself. If a student is struggling due to valid causes (family issues, sickness, mental health), a professor should be open to extensions and/or alternatives. If a student has concerns about a grade, the professor should be open to explaining why the grade was given. This is not to say a professor should amend it. But the grading scheme should not be some closed secret.
These qualities should be reasonably expected of all professors. Unfortunately, professors often forget their roots and begin to forget their classes are made up of passionate individuals rather than a faceless mob. Great professors will uphold the highest standards not only of their students, but of themselves.
How many of your professors were really great?
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There are a million little things that will make one professor successful when another is not. If you've had any great professors, make sure you let them and other students know. If you have end-of-semester evaluations, fill them out truthfully and thoughtfully. Professors often use the information to improve their techniques and to better understand what is working. Similarly, fellow students can better choose their classes and avoid poor professors.
If your school does not request evaluations, I encourage you to use sites like RateMyProfessors.com or KnowYourProfessor.com. Sites like these can get a bad reputation for being inaccurate. As with most rating sites, the people with the negative voices often overpower the positives. But this fact makes it all the more important to provide useful information when you are in the know.
So how about it? Have you had any fantastic professors?