As the semester progresses, many professors, myself included, are beginning to firmly nestle ourselves into the trappings of college life -- paper grading, lectures or discussions, research, conferences and committees. Regardless of what activities academics immerse ourselves in, teaching remains the most crucial aspect.
Earlier this year, at the end of this past spring semester, I (along with my then department chair), received an email from my dean informing me that I had been selected to receive one of the distinguished faculty teaching awards that are given annually by the college. I was elated to hear such splendid news. That news quickly spread throughout my department and I quickly became the recipient of numerous email comments expressing hearty congratulations from a number of my colleagues, including my former department chair who had written a mesmerizing, eloquent and supportive letter on my behalf.
As someone who has been told by a number of students, fellow colleagues and even some senior-level administrators that I am an effective teacher, I found it reassuring that such acknowledgment had been recognized in such a public manner.
I have been a professor for almost two decades and have taught at every academic level and various types of courses -- freshmen, upperclassmen, honors, graduate students, etc. I am well aware of the fact that teaching is a skill that is complex. There is no one method that is the standard.
Indeed, good and effective teaching can manifest itself in a multitude of ways. Both professor A and professor B could be outstanding professors and yet employ diametrically diverse teaching methods in their courses. In essence, there is no one pathway to effective and innovative teaching. That being said, I would argue that there are a combination of qualities that distinguish good professors from poor ones. A few of them are:
· An engaging personality
It has been my experience as both an undergraduate student, graduate student and even now as tenured full professor that the best professors are often the ones who go beyond the basics. These are the professors who do not simply resort to delivering basic lectures in their courses. They are often able to effectively connect with their students, holding their undivided attention, engaging in a give-and-take manner with their students, often involving them in the subject matter.
· A passion for the subject matter
Effective professors clearly demonstrate a sincere and genuine interest in their subject matter. It is often evident in their attitude toward the material, an infectious enthusiasm for whatever they are attempting to convey to their students. Moreover, they are often able to transmit such passion to others around them.
· Demonstrated command of the subject matter
Great teachers exhibit expertise in the subjects that they are teaching and are often looking for ways to further enhance their knowledge of the field. These are the professors that are always incorporating new information or techniques into their teaching and subject matter. They never allow themselves to become stagnant.They employ technology in the classroom as appropriate. Wisely, not recklessly. They subscribe to the belief that no course should be taught the same way forever.
· Willingness to acknowledge your missteps
Good professors also realize that no one is perfect. Even the best professors are inclined to make a misstep from time to time. When this happens, rather than being in denial or becoming defensive, the effective professor acknowledges his or her mistake(s) and makes an effort to rectify them. These are the professors who are not afraid to go off script, or indeed, rewrite the script, if need be.
· Being receptive to other's opinions
Every profession has its share of egotistical people. Academia is no exception. Given the years of toil, grit (and sometimes tears along the journey) that it takes to earn a Ph.D., it is only normal that a person would have or eventually cultivate some degree of ego. Sometimes this is evident when a professor may become unnerved when a student challenges their viewpoints. They tend to become defensive, irritated and out right angry at being challenged. The sad reality is that there are some professors (I would like to think that they are in the significant minority) who have trouble accepting positions, arguments and ideas that are at odds with their own. Nonetheless, effective professors are the ones who are able to understand and accept the fact that there is often more than one way at looking at an issue. They do not expect all students to embrace their opinion(s) on everything. In fact, good professors encourage healthy debate in their classrooms as opposed to shutting down any form of dissent.
· Being fair and transparent
The best professors are fair, open and transparent. They are authorities in the discipline as well as in the classroom. They refrain from engaging in bully-like or other humiliating tactics, treat students with decency and respect and do not play favorites. They often have rigorous, yet reasonable, standards, and do not live just to see how many low grades or students they can fail. They give reasonable deadlines for assignments to be completed and are astute and sensitive to the fact that many students are often enrolled in several classes at any given academic quarter or semester and that their lives (students) do not solely revolve around their specific course/courses.
While there other examples and no one path or size fits all when it comes to excellent teaching, these are just a few characteristics I would argue are crucial to one being a successful and effective in the college classroom.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of Beginning a Career in Academia: A Guide For Graduate Students of Color (Routledge Press, 2014).