What Makes a Great Professor? Here are Three

The Cherry Award provides a $200,000 prize to whomever is judged to be America’s best college professor. The WSJ last night ran a story about three candidates for this award, sponsored by Baylor College. It focuses on the really important part of teaching in college which has been overshadowed by the institutions’ focus on publishing. Three top professors are in the running:

Elliott West teaches American history at the University of Arkansas. In his class, the students are rapt as he speaks without notes, and doesn’t ask for audience participation. He advises: never underestimate the power of dead air. Ask a question and simply wait for an answer. People will squirm and eventually somebody will try. He carries a coffee cup that instead of liquid is full of candy…a good answer will get a piece.

Edward Burger teaches math at Williams College. He has his students rolling in the aisles as he proves, mathematically, that an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters could produce ‘Hamlet.’ Burger says that emphathy is the key to good teaching. Since much of the math that students learn has little value after college, he focuses on ‘the 10 year question…what will my students retain from my class 10 years after they graduate?’ So he emphasizes how to think mathematically.

Roger Rosenblatt teaches at Baylor and is a former commentator on PBS’s Newshour. He could be doing any number of other more lucrative things, but he likes his students and takes them seriously. He suggests that the most important thing for a young professor is to learn their subject well. “The best professors he had in school ‘worried about their subjects in front of us,’ almost as if they were thinking aloud….lost in thought.’ That made Rosenblatt realize he had a truly engaged and smart professor.

The story detailed that in today’s academia, more than 72,000 academic publications came out last year, soaring more than 400% in the past half-century, while more and more classes are taught by adjunct faculty and grad students.Universities subsidize the writing by giving reduced teaching loads to faculty members who publish.