What makes a great professor? A commanding knowledge of their field is a given. But just as key is a passion for students and a respect for the journey these young adults are taking. Some are so devoted to undergraduate teaching that they choose to do it exclusively. Others maintain a commitment to undergrads while carrying out research and graduate-level teaching. A great professor is engaged—and it doesn’t matter if his class has 30 students or 300. And while it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll go out for beers every Friday night, it does mean that they will be available during their office hours and ready to answer questions. Often, they will have a sense of humour and demonstrate a desire to learn from their students, as much as their students learn from them. And they will have a willingness to change and adapt their teaching and evaluation methods, whether by embracing new technologies or using old-fashioned networking techniques to pick up teaching tips from other colleagues. The four educators we profile here exemplify these qualities and that’s why they deserve to be called great profs.
Professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of British Columbia
Stull, 61, is a world-renowned expert in numerical weather prediction and also specializes in weather-related disasters in mountainous coastal regions. He has been teaching at UBC for 16 years and, before that, he was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin. A native of Baltimore, Stull has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a PhD in atmospheric science, both from the University of Washington. In his spare time, he likes to fly planes and is also a flight instructor.
Why he’s good
Stull has a gift for making science compelling even to those without a background in it. His first-year course, called The Catastrophic Earth: Natural Disasters, has no prerequisites and is a popular choice for non-science majors. Each session draws between 300 and 400 students, half of them female. Every two weeks, Stull brings in a different professor to teach in his or her area of expertise—the topics can include everything from volcanoes to earthquakes. “[The students]enjoy when each of us comes in with our own stories. They see the human side of doing science,” Stull says.
He is an advocate of staying on top of technological innovations that boost the effectiveness of his teaching. Between lectures, students are given online questions about that week’s reading assignments, including one that asks what topic gave them the most difficulty. This allows Stull to tailor the next class to respond to how the class is progressing, as opposed to where the syllabus says it should be. During the lecture, students use wireless clickers to respond to multiple-choice questions about the topic they are discussing. “I instantly see whether they get it or not,” Stull says. If they’re having difficulties, he’ll segue into a micro-lecture to clarify them.
On engaging students
“I love interacting with the students,” Stull says, “to see their eyes light up. To see them evolve and mature. To see the joy of learning.” He was very keen to take part in the university’s Carl Wieman science education initiative, a project launched in 2007 by the Nobel laureate in physics to improve how science is taught to undergraduates. “Although there are many different teaching methods, it’s a reality that not all are effective,” says Stull. “The best way to tell is to gather a lot of data and to see where the students are learning. The bottom line is to approach scientific teaching scientifically.”
Associate Professor in Music History, Mount Allison University
Wells, 46, grew up in Toronto in a family where there was a lot of music and many teachers. After graduating with a BA in music history at the University of Toronto, she worked at a radio station as a classical music programmer. She chose to go back to university to do graduate work in musicology at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, because she “wanted to go deeper” in her knowledge of the art form. She has been teaching at Mount Allison for 10 years and says that being appointed a National 3M Teaching Fellow in 2010 felt like winning an Oscar.
Why she’s good
Wells has developed a number of cool courses—there’s one devoted to The Beatles. Another, Music and Difference, comes with a warning label about the R-rated content. Wells is part of a growing movement called the scholarship of teaching and learning, which advocates that professors constantly refine their methods of how to engage students. So, for example, instead of a 15% participation grade, Wells now awards students a 15% professionalism grade—a more important benchmark.
“Because I’m a very organized person, I used to design courses that were very tight, very focused,” Wells says. “Now I am much more spontaneous because that’s where the real moments of learning happen.” Even people who aren’t registered in her class drop by because of her gregarious reputation.
On engaging students
She is empathetic to students who don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of others and will tell them a story about a painfully shy woman she knew at university—herself. Students are often impressed and touched by her candour. “The journey from a place of uncertainty to a place at the front of a classroom seems a very long journey indeed,” Wells says. It’s important for “us to always be mindful, with gratitude, of our students—their journeys, their struggles, their victories, their stories—which are ours as well.”
Professor of English, University of Winnipeg
Deborah Schnitzer, 61, has been teaching at the University of Winnipeg since 1988. She did an undergraduate degree in English and philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and graduate work at the Universities of Calgary and Manitoba. She is also a published poet and novelist, a filmmaker and a social activist. She is a National 3M Teaching Fellow.
Why she’s good
Schnitzer loves that students in her classes are not just English majors but come from all disciplines. She welcomes the use of multimedia for assignments, “anything that a student conceives of”—be it a quilt, a picture, a music composition, a dance, a video or a sculpture. Schnitzer is a big believer in learning by doing and started a program where students get hands-on experience through university-community partnerships. In one of these practicum courses, students commit themselves to working four to six hours a week for a non-profit organization, in addition to their time in the classroom. In the second half of the course, they develop a collective community-building class project.
The first thing Schnitzer does in all of her classes, even if there are dozens of students, is to make a circle with the desks. “In a circle, people can’t hide in the back with their laptops,” she laughs. Regarding the distraction of iPads and smart phones, she chooses to be upfront from the very beginning and asks the students to make a collective decision about what place the devices have in the classroom. She calls it a bill of rights. “We don’t pretend it’s not going on. We deal with it with humour, warmth, generosity and authenticity.”
On engaging students
Schnitzer is devoted to undergraduate teaching and says that she found her very first experience dramatic and exciting. She loves sharing epiphanies with her students, “watching people fall in and out of love with literature.”
Undergraduate Laboratory Co-Ordinator, Department of Biology, University of Ottawa
Basso, 51, has been teaching molecular biology and microbiology at the University of Ottawa since 2000. Growing up in Montreal, he wanted to be a vet but, ironically for an award-winning educator, he felt he wasn’t a good enough student. He has an MA and PhD from Concordia University, and held two postdoctoral research fellowships before turning to teaching. He was a professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and then moved to the University of Ottawa where he teaches in both English and French.
Why he’s good
Basso’s open-door policy is so well known that even students who aren’t in his class drop by his office to see him—their friends who are in Basso’s class assure them: “Go see John. He will help you.” Basso offers assistance with everything from deciphering scientific jargon to helping students figure out job applications to prepping them for interviews for medical school. “Students are often intimidated by professors,” he says. “Unless you make it really clear to them that you are available, they won’t [come to see you.]
He tells students: “My name is John,” and asks them to avoid calling him “Dr. Basso.” “I want to show that I’m just like one of them. Not better than them.”
On engaging students
He finds interacting with students more gratifying than scientific research and has chosen to commit himself exclusively to teaching, rather than trying to juggle both. “With teaching, you have an immediate impact. You can change minds. Independent of the size of the class, you just want to show the students that you care about what makes them unique, you care about what they’ll do and that you’ll guide them.”
THE FLIPSIDE: RESEARCH OVER TEACHING
Professors should be inspirations and mentors, but far too many students are left disappointed with the person at the front of the lecture hall. In an analysis of 6,000 students as part of the Canadian University Report survey last year, one-quarter said their worst academic experience related to a poor professor. This ranged from frustration over a professor’s organizational skills, such as inadequate office hours, to poor language or pedagogical skills and rude or mean demeanour. “They are common complaints,” says Alex Usher, founding president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, which analyzes the report’s survey responses. First year of university can be a huge shock to many students, he says, and “students are looking for contact and sympathy. They just feel lost and are looking for someone to give them a hand.” But unfortunately, many of them are not finding this guidance from their professors. And the situation is getting worse, Usher adds.
Part of the problem stems from professors who are too caught up in their research to be committed to their undergraduate teaching responsibilities. But Usher also blames the economics of how Canadian universities are set up. The institutions are rewarded, both financially and through greater prestige, by producing top-level research. So universities admit more undergraduates then they can realistically handle and then skim from those earnings to pay for research going on at the top.
Given the reward structure, Usher doesn’t see the overall picture improving any time soon. However, there are some smaller changes being made to improve undergraduate students’ connection to their professors. For instance, the University of Toronto has first-year seminar courses which are limited to 20 students, instead of the more typical 200 or 300. “Hopefully the professors signing up for these seminars are motivated [to build strong relationships with first-year students]” Usher says.
A more systemic change that would be necessary, he adds, is for university administrations to make the connection between overall budgeting and course loads for professors. He says universities are not deliberately hiding the trade-offs, but they are not making them transparent.