What makes a good professor?

As education and culture advance, listless profs must adapt or find new vocations.
  • Jenna Beyer
April 18, 2010

Never let your schooling interfere with your education. Whether Mark Twain penned it or not, it’s an intriguing aphorism. An English-major friend of mine recently said, “Who has time to learn? Only prison inmates.” These turns of phrase may appear a simple charm, but they prod one down worthy avenues of investigation: What is “education”? How do those who profess to educate succeed in its cultivation?
Student life has many variables. Where you live, who you live with; changes of program plans; which bus to ride, which class to take. Should I take on debt to make an investment in college education? Is my time best spent building an impressive résumé before entering the volatile American job market?
One key factor here is rarely discussed with any passion, but it just may be the most fundamental of all: What makes an effective teacher?
Dr. Dan Mrozowski, Ph.D., is well-known in the University of Minnesota’s English department for his energetic, passionate lectures, or “conversations,” and for his old-school style of teaching — chalk and a blackboard that fills three or four times per lecture.
Of course, effectiveness is hard to measure. Teaching and learning styles vary widely, and unsavory combinations — just like car accidents — are bound to happen. As a student, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between what’s just a clash of style and what’s truly a low-quality learning experience. Most students know teaching isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean we should lower our expectations.
In some cases, teaching and research compete. Some professors seem more genuinely interested in their research than in their students. In other cases, students find their primary contact is with a teaching assistant, not the actual professor. This can make for narrow communication with the professor. Communication deficiencies reduce opportunities for learning and suppress intellectual curiosity.
Undergraduate student Jessica Henderson says, “In some classes, it seems as if professors are just placeholders. It’s the TAs that do most of the work, and it shouldn’t be that way.” Henderson, an elementary education major, says she knows that having graduate student-taught classes is part of attending a big school, but it’s still an issue.
For student instructors the chemistry equation is no different; either there is a reaction, or there isn’t. But there are some situations when teaching and research collide with the clock. Henderson explains, “Professors are getting their money from students, yet their focus is more on their research, which isn’t fair to us.”
Vanessa Borotz, an undergraduate geography major, says a good professor “teaches a subject that they are passionate about but is still in touch with where their students are at.” She says active conversation about class topics is key, and use of different types of media is also important. She says the most effective professor she’s known is Dr. Robert Edsall, who teaches geography. Borotz says Edsall incorporates an array of media into his PowerPoint presentations, which she often shows to friends, and that he chooses meaningful guest speakers who, in her words, “really broaden the scope of our understanding of cartography beyond the academic world.”
Core classes can be the most challenging part of a student’s schedule because they necessarily hail from a different discipline. I often wonder if students will ever be able to register for Agronomy 1101 for English majors. Sometimes, students used to test-taking struggle with writing papers. After a while, many find that it just isn’t worth it to struggle, and “settle” (work hard) for a C. This is disparaging for students who truly do want to step out of their comfort zones and disciplines.
Mrozowski says it’s obvious that students are more stressed out than they were ten years ago when he began teaching. “To see a really stressed-out 19-year-old,” he says “there’s something wrong. It’s obvious. I can see it on their faces.”
When I ask Mrozowski how he can maintain enthusiasm in the face of fatigue, distraction and stress, he paraphrases Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Enthusiasm is the closest thing we can get to divinity, and I found that in literature. I get excited. And I just think, ‘I know some of you are playing Sudoku, but I’m going to keep blasting away.’ ”
What does matter, then? A personal connection and passion that can transcend intense distraction, stress and extreme fatigue to engage with a student’s interests in the moment, in the classroom, is what. It may seem like a lofty ideal, but anything less makes for a learning experience that is utterly forgettable.
In the end, the best professors are the ones who teach with energy, exhibiting a palpable desire to educate. The best professors have strict expectations but understand the student condition keenly, so not to expect from students what they don’t deliver themselves. These professors ignite the natural intrigue of the students and leave a lasting mark — an intellectual gift — that informs not just one narrow area of knowledge but life itself.
The best teaching is organic, and we’ve got to demand it. That students pay for anything less is unacceptable at the University of Minnesota or any institution whose primary goal is higher education.
Jenna H. Beyer welcomes comments at jbeyer@mndaily.com

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