Thursday, October 20, 2011

What makes a good professor?

I generally have really awesome professors this quarter.

My professor for the social science philosophy requirement at Chicago is not only a brilliant scholar, but a clear speaker and a generally nice guy. The teacher in the Norwegian class I'm auditing has taught us an incredible amount of Norwegian culture, vocabulary and grammar in four weeks - all with a relaxed smile (and, occasionally, cookies!). My Geography professor is a Grand Old Sir who makes the class into the biggest storytime ever. My history professor is....EPIC. She is a GENIUS. She is AMAZING. I've learned so much about Chicago....

(My Chinese class is a bit dull. Alas.)

I also had some amazing teachers at UChicago last year - my Ottoman Civilization professor, Ancient Egypt professor, and Chinese teacher spring to mind. And my Assyria professor. I learned more in one year here than I learned in most of my classes in high school.

So I've been thinking - what makes a good professor?

I don't think there's a formula or anything. Honestly, each discipline to a certain extent will require different attributes - I could go on and on about good language teachers (of which I've had several), or good history teachers (of which I've had several), or bad English teachers (of which I've had two), or terrible math teachers (of which I've had two). But I've identified a few attributes that all my amazing professors shared:

Passion - all of my professors are really passionate about what they're teaching. They don't necessarily see it as the world's most important thing, but it's the thing that they love - their beloved discipline. They get excited when you show interest in a topic (for example, my Egypt professor's amazing reading list when I told her I was interested in Coptic stuff), but they don't tell you that it should be your passion too. They just push their love for the topic into the way they teach, and they teach it with gusto. It's not a drag for them.

Humanity - I've unfortunately have had a professor  who looks down on students, treats them like uncultured jackasses, and makes broad and inaccurate assumptions about them.

My awesome professors don't do that. If anything, they show their own human nature to the students - their pet peeves, or their funny stories, or even just the things that make them happy. They talk to the students as friends, and are generally quite helpful. I don't feel awkward around my favorite professors, because they've made themselves human.

Cross-disciplinary ability - a good professor is fucking amazing in his or her own discipline and really good at a few others. This allows them to really put a broader perspective into their teaching. They can bring in other sciences and disciplines, and put their subject into a much more useful context. I would have not liked Assyrian history so much had my professor not put it into a context of broader imperial history and the context of Biblical exegesis (Assyriology is extremely useful for the Old Testament). I learned a lot about urban planning and construction in my Egyptian history class. My Norwegian class is also a great place to learn about different conceptions of modesty, and the aspects of bad translations. My Ottoman history class completely changed the way I think about politics in the US. It really makes the subject...even more awesome.

Visual skills - one thing I've noticed is that a good professor can present information well in a visual sense. My Civ professors had amazing slideshows (Power-Points can be awesome. Consult Hakan Karateke or Nadine Moeller for assistance). My Social Sciences professor makes incredible charts to explain Smith. My Chinese teacher last year had an incredible calendar on his syllabus. A good sense for information organization can make a world of difference.


Stern grading - I'm totally old school with grades, and I like professors to be that way too. You won't improve unless the professor is totally honest with you. My favorite professors are harsh graders who tell it to you like it is. It helps you learn more and improve your writing/knowledge/language ability. Then again, I do well in their classes because they teach so well. But if I mess up, I know their honesty will help me get back up again.
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This post is for my friend Hannah, who's currently kicking ass as a Teach for America corps member in Detroit. Hannah, you're going to be one of these amazing teachers. I know it.
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Side update: I'm going to probably start a separate blog where I do pop song translations between English and Chinese. The Milkshake translation project will go on this, as will translations of Teresa Teng songs (Teng was a Taiwanese diva in the 70s and 80s), as well as everyone's favorite Beyoncé song - Single Ladies.

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