Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What makes a good professor?

Periodically I hear professors talk about what makes for a good teacher, at least a well-received teacher. Several common explanations include:

1) Personality. Somebody is a good teacher because they have the right personality--out-going, warm, etc...

2) Students. Some teachers attribute their success or lack of success to the quality of the students. E.g., feeling that they had "good" students who got the material.

3) Demographics. Some discussions revolve around characteristics like age, gender, race... E.g., a young professor thinking that students don't respect them because of their age.

4) Class topic. Some classes are seen as harder to get good evals in than other classes. E.g., in our department research methods is seen as a tough class.

I was reading an article about Walter Lewing of MIT, who at 71 is becoming a teaching superstar on the internet. Apparently he preps about 40 hours for each class, and he does three full dry runs for every lecture. Wow!

When I read that, I had two immediate thoughts. 1) That's an awful lot of prep time! and 2) I almost never hear teaching-effectiveness discussions revolve around hard work and practice.

Maybe the way to teaching stardom is the same way to Carnegie Hall...

7 comments:

Jerry said...

Wow--that's a pretty cool article. It's interesting because much of my teacher training (for high school English work) emphasized not being the Dead Poet's Society "sage on the stage" kind of teacher. The point is to focus on your students and their voices. But there's still some performance to teaching, I think--being an engaging and interesting presence (or trying to be). But that's a LOT of prep--not sure if I could sustain it.

Jason K said...

Do you mean by practicing?? What a novel concept. . .

sapience said...

Forty hours a week? For one class? He must not be teaching more than one class at a time, and he certainly can't be doing any research. He must have tenure...

He also doesn't seem to build any time in for discussion (which maybe less necessary for Physics than, say, English) if he can time his lectures that perfectly. He's obviously a great performer, and a great communicator of information, but I'm not sure I'd call him a great teacher based on what is presented in that article.

Obviously practice and hard work make better teachers. But few teachers are given the time necessary to do what Lewin does: they have multiple preps, research to do, committees to be on, students to advise, and even *gasp* lives to lead. Even at 60 hours a week of work with only teaching counted, someone teaching four classes can only put in 15 hours per class. I'm not sure Walter Lewin can be anything but an (awesome) anomaly in higher education.

Janet said...

While I think 40 hours is extreme, I don't think it's a surprise that good teaching takes a lot of work and practice. If you're not tenured, it's taboo to talk about those things because then your colleagues assume you're not doing (enough) research.

Peter Thurley said...

I fell in love with my field because I had a professor who was able to clearly convey difficult concept (to the 18 year old, at least), with passion and excitement. I think that when a professor show, in class, genuine excitement for what they are teaching, it goes a long way to making a good professor. So many are concerned all and only with their own research that they don;t have the 'time of day' to spend with 18 and 19 year olds just starting out in the world. In a world where gratification is instant, a good professor is a professor who is able to grab and keep the attention of his students. In my experience, excitement and passion for the subject material will do it every time.

Brad Wright said...

I agree that's a lot of prep (way more than I would/could do).

Interesting about performance... I agree that there is an element of it. Also it can be practiced.

I hadn't thought about discussion. I suppose that could be practiced too... would need other people.

I think you're right, Janet, that untenured faculty walk a fine line. They want to come across as responsible, competent teachers but not into it "too" much. There is an element of self-presentation in getting tenure.

Peter, great story about an inspiring professor. I'm not sure I've ever inspired anyone into soicology, but maybe that's a kindness to them. ;-)

Stacey said...

I find that the more I teach as a professor, the needier my students become each semester. It may be an older student who feels they are too good for the class and is looking for negative attention; or a student who needs things repeated several times. I feel I may be too concerned about my evals at the end of the semester, and perhaps I cater to my students' needs too much instead of trying to teach them independent thinking skills. Whatever happened to "just teaching?" I don't care if my students like me or not, but I still feel like I need to entertain them.