The September 16, 2015, issue of The Wall Street Journal provided a wonderful essay by Jason Stevens titled “A Professor Who Put Teaching First.” He writes about one of his professors (Peter W. Schramm of Ashland University) who recently died. I found almost every word to be moving. However, here are two sentences that were really wonderful: “His office was always full of students wanting to tear off a bit of wisdom . . . Schramm taught his students how to think and live well, how to be prudent and judge wisely, how to seek the just and the true.”
Words like those were what made me want to become a college teacher way back when I was a young person. For me, kings and presidents could not have a more important and interesting life than Stevens describes.
Reading this essay started me thinking. Do students today still talk about their college teachers in such glowing terms? In some ways, the description of Professor Schramm sounds like something written from the 1960s. (or maybe the 1930s.)
As I travel around the country providing teaching seminars, the most common complaint I hear from faculty is “No one really cares whether I teach well. The students do not want to be challenged to work or think. As long as students don’t riot, the administration doesn’t really care. Why should I try to get better? Why should I work any harder? Students don’t appreciate good education. They are looking for the easiest way out of college.”
Trust me. Over the last few years, I have heard more than my fair share of cynicism. But, is it true? Does anyone really want better teaching today? Is that just a myth carried over from the past?
I decided to do an experiment. Recently, two of my former students returned to campus to participate in a program. A current student asked them what had been the toughest part of transitioning from college to the working world. Without hesitation, they both responded “having to be responsible for the work of others; we were never trained to do that.”
I wanted to address that issue. A few days later, I asked the students in my junior-level accounting class to write a short paragraph about the best teacher they have had here at the University of Richmond. I gave them no guidelines—just tell me about your best teacher. Later in the semester, we will use these essays to help the students think about what works well when you are responsible for other people. How do you get other people to function at a high level?
The only restriction to the assignment was that they could not write about me (although halfway through a very difficult semester, I doubt they were inclined to do so). And, in case you are wondering, this was a non-graded assignment. The students had no reason to feed me answers they thought I wanted.
I was fascinated by what each of the 25 students had to say. Many wrote long descriptions of great teachers. These were lovely and inspiring. Below are highlights. I hope they touch you as deeply as they did me. More importantly, the next time you are becoming cynical about the education process think back to what students continue to say about their best teachers. They really do appreciate what you do for them. It is 2015 and not 1965 but students still love and respect great teachers.
“He has been everywhere and done everything so I find talking to him to be very interesting. He encourages students to come to his office by luring them with all kinds of book recommendations. I think he fully understands that in order to return his books you have to come back. He takes a keen interest in people and he listens to what they say and how they say it. Not many people, let alone professors, are capable of doing this. When you stop by with a question about an assignment, you’ll end up having an hour’s conversation about Somali pirates, the etymology of Schadenfreude and how coyotes smuggle Mexicans across the border. This spontaneity and insatiable hunger for information is both fascinating and inspiring.”
“This class was the most challenging and terrifying course in which I have ever enrolled, but I learned more from that class than any other course in college. Starting the weekend before classes, the professor emailed my classmates an open-ended assignment: a blog post. Students were expected to produce written assignments on their own without exact outlines. This expectation forced me to develop my confidence (i.e., to become an adult) and because he was a harsh grader, students constantly pushed themselves to produce better work . . . In sum I believe that he was the best professor I have had because he (1) forced students to work without having the teacher watch ‘over their shoulder;’ (2) he constantly pushed students to work harder; and (3) he was able to establish a personal connection between students and the class material.”
“Before I even got into the door, I heard a professor scolding a student. I proceeded to go through the door. Someone had forgotten to do the prep work for the class, a short essay on what we already knew about the subject. We all sat down, and the rest was history (no pun intended). Her teaching style is an intense fast paced discussion for an hour and fifteen minutes. She initially asks someone to summarize the article and then proceeds to press the selected student with a few opening questions. From there, she is able to pick up every opinion and take it in a new direction. She doesn't use the chalkboard or any other supplemental material to direct the class other than her thoughts and our readings. Although there are many professors with this technique, it's her ability to question and lead a student's initial answers that is so impressive. It kept us on our toes and thinking fast.”
“He was the first professor where I felt I needed to start thinking more critically versus just simply relying on rote memorization . . . He really challenged us to take what we knew and apply it to ideas and situations. This meant that students needed to do more than just memorize the idea. You needed to understand what it really meant. I especially liked the project at the end of the year in which we had to use something we had learned throughout the semester and alter it to improve it and state how you could implement it in the real world. I struggled with this initially because I wasn't thinking of how the ideas really worked, but once I figured out how to think critically about the ideas in full, I felt I was able to better grasp the concepts and complete the assignment . . . He challenged me to alter my way of thinking which I had used throughout both high school and my freshman year.”
“She was a ruthless grader but always willing to work with students. In my experience with most of my classes, my teachers never usually possessed both of these qualities. The fact that she was strict on grading, at first, made me exceedingly nervous for one of my first college classes. However, I met with her frequently on my rough drafts and she was always willing to scour every detail of my writing. Even though she returned each of my drafts with more red ink than black print, I felt my writing was becoming stronger with each draft. That is exactly what I wanted . . . I am biased towards her class because I feel that strong writing and communication is a skill that is necessity for all college graduates, but it does not take away from my interest in her teaching style of coaxing intelligence out of her students.”
“His best quality was his work ethic. He was always up till at least two in the morning to answer emails. If you emailed him any questions he would respond promptly with in-depth answers and explanations. Also, every week, he would have an optional study group where we went over the homework problems. I respected him as a leader because of how hard he was willing to work to help me. When someone works that hard it makes you want to work just as hard out of respect. He truly cares about his students and their learning.”
“’These papers are C, D, maybe F worthy.’ As a first semester freshman at college, those words are not particularly encouraging to hear . . . Transitioning into college is almost as big as transitioning into a job, and although you may not immediately be in charge of other people quite yet, there is one paramount step: you are completely in charge of yourself. Many students may claim to start doing this earlier on, in high school or earlier, but I truly believe that college is the transitory phase of becoming and acting like an adult- which involves making all of your own decisions. The professor saw the potential in our class, and in each individual. She made it clear that each individual in the class had the potential to do better and get an A, not just ‘better’ . . . Finally, after four edits and what seemed like an entirely different paper, I managed to start making progress in her class . . . I truly became more conscious of my everyday vernacular, keeping up to par a personal sense of critical thinking and not settling for mediocre responses in my courses.”
“This professor made the class very inclined to discussion. You had to be prepared for each class by reading a historical case. The cases were usually black-and-white, but our discussions were exciting. He expected everyone in the class to have an opinion on all of the cases, he helped guide you into what he thought was actually the more accurate story, and he was not an easy grader. The class was better if you participated because he would yell at students to get them passionate about the subject matter. I’d say what made this professor great is that he made the student feel that his opinion mattered as long as you could back it up.”
“He was my best professor so far for many reasons but a few of them were accountability, critical thinking, and understanding. First of all he always held each and every student accountable for any of the work assigned and if the student had not attempted the work or did not try then consequences would be made. Yes, this may seem harsh, but it forced all of his students to put in the time and effort into the material to actually learn it. Second of all, was his ability to make students use their critical-thinking skills. He would ask questions to push the students and learn above and beyond just the textbook. Last of all, was his understanding. The subject was not easy, but if you put in the time and effort he was always available to help answer any type of question.”
“All of my favorite professors at Richmond have been enthusiastic about the subject they teach, willing to help, and interested in getting to know their students as individuals . . . The funny thing is, for my favorite professor, I had to drag myself out of bed to his class every morning at 9 A.M. and I didn’t even like the subject. He somehow got me to the point where I was excited to complete his assignments (I wasn’t as excited to wake up for the early class though) . . . He’s passionate about the subject he teaches and always encourages students to participate. If I had any trouble with the material I was learning, he was always open to helping me work through it.”
“He does a great job of leading class discussion making sure that every student is involved, connects what he is teaching to current events, finds ways to make class interesting, and provides timely feedback on papers and other assignments. He made me excited to go to class even though it was scheduled at nine a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Also, he was always approachable outside of class.”
“I enjoyed his class because he ran it unlike any other class I’ve taken. There is an ongoing project, which required us to make regular presentations on our progress. This way, he gave ongoing feedback every step of the way. He’s not afraid to tell you if he thinks your idea is stupid (and he’ll put it that bluntly), which I think is helpful in the long run. The rest of the class time is an open conversation that loosely follows the textbook, but goes in whatever direction the class takes it. He’ll often stop in the middle of a sentence to call on students because he wants to hear our ideas. He brings a very subtle, dry sense of humor to these conversations, which keeps student’s attention and makes us look forward to class and makes us want to contribute to discussion . . . As a professor, he demands respect on his own account but still makes students feel comfortable and free to voice their opinions.”
“What I liked most about this professor was his philosophy toward teaching. He put a much greater value on learning than he did on grades, which is something that most students and teachers do not do. This philosophy, however, did match up with my personal beliefs, so I was immediately interested . . . Through his style of teaching, this professor was able to make me interested in a topic where I had no prior interest. I believe I learned more in his class that I still am able to remember than any other class I took as a freshman. To this day I still remember things about Pushkin, Belinsky, Gogol, and other writers.”
“I valued him as one of the University of Richmond’s best professors for three reasons. First, he respected his students. Every time I visited his office, I could genuinely feel that he really respected me and cared about me. Second, he helped us form a community within the class. We worked as a group and we could learn more about each other throughout the course. Third, he was good at openly complimenting students. He was able to compliment individual students during the class time. I am pretty sure he ended up complimenting every one of us in the classroom by the end of the semester. Also compliments were not generic, but personal and skill specified.”
“This professor would always make his students excited to go to his class . . . The most important thing he teaches you is about observation. He will give you something interesting to read and some hints and questions to think about and then let you observe the details yourself. Meanwhile, he is open to different opinions, even weird ones. He really knows his specialty area and can pull out any related information to further explore the material with his students. He is super kind, intriguing, extremely helpful and really cares about his students. He likes to meet with his students and have wonderful conversations about class topics or something interesting. We once had an amazing discussion on The Age of Innocence about his favorite character Ellen Olenska. He gave me passion for literature. He taught me how to see what is beneath the characters and what is observation.”
“He begins class by simply asking each one about how their week is going or how they are feeling that particular day. He sees and understands that his students are more than just students; they are a friend, a sister/brother, a son/daughter, a mentor, an employee, a volunteer, etc. With this perspective, he accommodates to the needs of the majority through flexibility and understanding. He has an undying passion for what he teaches. He engages his students towards the subject by the way he presents the material in class. Lastly, the calm and relaxing atmosphere he brings to the classroom attracts students who look forward to his class every week. In return, the students are so inspired and motivated to reciprocate the efforts and attitude by involving themselves in more classroom participation and increasing their determination level for the class.”
“The professor turns a boring lecture into an interactive one as he makes every single student get involved in the class conversation. He designs the course such that materials would be more interesting so that students can learn them through doing real case studies. . . . The greatest thing about this professor is that he puts a lot of effort into talking to his students and getting to them personally. His office is always open for help, advice, or just a short chat.”