It has been said more than once that a good teacher knows the subject matter, while a great teacher is passionate about it. And nowhere is this statement more true than at a university level, where things like high class sizes, tenure, publications in academic journals, and other research opportunities can often cause professors to become rather lackadaisical about their teaching.
For a lot of professors today, a significant majority of their teaching comes down to their lectures. And while a professor may be very knowledgeable about that subject, if he or she does not know how to lecture well, it is ultimately the students who suffer. I’ve had a physics professor, for example, with a Ph.D in his field and decades of experience under his belt. He’s certainly a well-learned expert; but when he gave lectures, he spoke in a very soft, monotonous voice. And with run-on sentences everywhere, it seemed like he never paused to even take a breath. Not to mention that English wasn’t his native tongue, so he spoke with a slight accent. (This one I can’t fault him for; but that doesn’t mean it detracted from his lectures any less.)
Even when I was sitting in the front and center of the class, it was a mental strain to pay attention. Not only that, but his lectures were almost entirely him simply reading from his Powerpoint presentation, which he would post online after each class meeting. So in addition to the effort required simply to pay attention, there was always the mental trap of just reading those presentations on my own, outside class. Combine all of this, and it’s clear to see to how 9 shots of espresso could not keep me awake in that class. In fact, I had to withdraw from it; and I ended up taking Chemistry instead, the following semesters.
On the other extreme, I’ve had professors who are obviously passionate about their classes — for example, asking questions of the students, providing real-world examples, inviting lots of discussion, and really just having fun talking about the coursework. (And for the more awesome engineering professors, this often involves quite a bit of hilarious puns.) This happens even in more extracurricular things, too.
For instance, as part of my university’s Men’s Chorus, I find myself grinning from ear to ear after every rehearsal. Our conductor is fantastic. He’s so emphatic about the music we sing, and so emotive about everything we do in rehearsals and in our performances, from proper vocal technique to really nailing those more obscure rhythms and lyrics, and sometimes even to life in general. He’s also very encouraging and approachable. He clearly enjoys being at each rehearsal. And he clearly wants us to be better singers, and certainly, better people both on- and off-stage. He sincerely wants our choir to be more than just the sum of its voices — and you can see it in his mannerisms, his energy, the determination of how he teaches. (I suppose that in some ways, it’s a bit of an irony that one of my all-time favorite teachers is in a subject far removed from my majors.)
I hope that my fellow students (and former students) have had professors on that better end of this spectrum. For now, I’ll just have to hope that those end-of-semester evaluations are given their due considerations…