Art of Teaching
What is the one thing that’s higher in demand at a university than a keg on game days? Anyone, anyone? Does anyone know the factor that can make or break a student’s GPA and, consequently, his lifelong career dreams? Can anyone tell me the answer?
It’s safe to brand a teacher who raises more questions than answers as a nightmare case. My allusion to the overly inquisitive economics teacher from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was meant to put into perspective just how relatively good Canes have it when it comes to the competency of their professors. After investing so much in tuition, it’s natural to expect our money’s worth in each class. As many will eventually find, this isn’t necessarily so. A casual visit to RateMyProfessors.com validates this.
The best teaching weapons in a professor’s academic arsenal consist of an inherent love of instruction and the natural capacity to connect with others. As is the case with other art forms, mastering the art of teaching doesn’t depend on one’s experience or academic degree. Teaching is perhaps even more heavily judged than other art forms, mainly because professors are subject to the scrutiny of the toughest kind of critic out there: the irked student.
To provide a laundry list of qualities that make up a mythologized “ideal” teaching style is to request an impossible feat. Instead, I offer accounts of previous class experiences that have helped me to distinguish the good from the bad and the perfectly average professors.
Throughout an undergraduate career, one encounters a spectrum of teaching styles that run the gamut with regards to effectiveness.
A good professor is a godsend to come across. As another little optimistic fish in the big, competitive pond (pre-med track) at the University of Miami, I can attest to the high rates of enrollment in science courses and the negative effect this has on the quality of the classes. Professors in the science departments and other large programs must revert to quick fixes in order to be able to cover the material while handling the masses (for example, by overusing PowerPoint and rushing through practice problems on the board). I had an enviable (if not elusive), article-worthy science class experience in a general chemistry course I took my first semester freshman year.
With his Doc Brown-like mannerisms aside, this professor’s quirky personality and obvious passion for the subject not only engaged students, but also nurtured within us an appreciation of chemistry. That is, until o-chem cruelly dashed our slim prospect of having a social life. I loved that he would spit out relevant fun facts whenever possible and then include them as bonus questions on tests.
Attending class spared you the necessity of having to trudge through a wordy Nivaldo Tro text that functioned better as a paperweight than anything else. The professor’s willingness to draw examples from his research and personal life allowed us to build a good rapport with him and establish an unintimidating discussion environment. In stark contrast to passive speeches that spoon-fed information to be regurgitated later, these lectures felt like insightful, in-depth conversations. Participation was always encouraged. He also offered wacky, memorable examples to help demystify tough concepts. An analogy comparing jealous Hungarian in-laws to the delocalization of electrons still sticks in my memory.
I also think consistently cheery personalities are admired by most students. My professor for music theory and composition was no exception to this rule of thumb. Her upbeat attitude motivated us to pay attention, regardless of the fact that the class corresponded with most people’s mid-morning crashes.
She invented interactive games, such as making us compete against other teams with soul fetch versions of contemporary songs. She clarified difficult concepts and remained patient with the less musically inclined kids. This was no easy feat, considering our class consisted of an eclectic range of musical backgrounds: from tone-deaf newbies to snooty musical prodigies.
What really set this professor apart was her ability to translate material that could have been delivered in a dry and rote manner into something far more exciting. With the solid foundation I gained in the beginner’s music theory, I became eager to explore more of the classes offered at Frost. Eventually, I earned so many credits that I decided to pursue a minor in music.
While it might be easy to liven up a class that is inherently creative, riveting a classroom can be more challenging in traditionally academic courses. The effective use of anecdotes have definitely made my experience in such classes more rewarding, and my Shakespeare professor specialized in succinct, funny and pointed stories. He also liked to riff with students during intervals of his spiel, doing a good job of keeping us tuned in. For example, on the first day, he struck us by providing a silly list of the only three reasons we were ever allowed to miss class: if we were feeling sick, if we had the prospect of making a ton of money somewhere else or if we were pursuing a great love affair.
His witty personality shined through everything he said. I enjoyed attending lectures and hearing him poke fun at current events or at himself. Furthermore, I observed him to be very understanding with regard to individual situations and flexible regarding assignment deadlines. It was clear he sincerely cared about shaping us into better writers. He strongly suggested that everyone schedule appointments to go over essays on a one-on-one basis. This functioned as a nice contrast to other English professors who rush to return papers with useless, scrawled commentary. After this fantastic literature course, I became inspired to pick English as an additional major to biology.
Leaps of Faith
Take everything you read on RateMyProfessors.com with a grain of salt. Its practical uses are limited. Its comical ones, on the other hand, are various — the more scathing the review, the more amusing to be sure.
Yet, proceed with caution and be mindful of the fact that the ratings might not accurately reflect reality. After all, it is mainly students who earn lower-than-expected grades who make like social justice warriors on Tumblr and utilize this site as a platform for kvetching about anything and everything. I plead the case of the underdog and argue that all professors are humans. The occasional fluke is to be expected, while open-mindedness on the part of the student is key. A professor you might initially write off as a bore can end up impressing you by the end of the semester. So long as professors are equal parts instructive as they are erudite, the semester should be full of pleasant intellectual surprises.
Adrianne Babun-Chavarria is a junior majoring in biology and English.
Featured image courtesy Pixabay user StartupStockPhotos