September 23, 2012

O-Issue 2012: Professors

Whether they’ve won a Nobel Prize, write for The New Republic, or have a curriculum vitae the size of a small book, scores of notable faculty at the University of Chicago are at your disposal. It’s perhaps the most overexposed fact of this place; very smart, internationally recognized people teach here, and the school hasn’t been shy in saying so on shirts, brochures, and newsletters.

But a teacher’s reputation or brand name isn’t what provides quality education. Instead of reiterating what the University has to say, here are a few pieces of advice for dealing with professors, world-famous or not, based on our own experiences:

Go to office hours. If you take a class with a well-known, well-liked professor, chances are the course will be packed to the brim with overzealous students. Though small seminars offer ample opportunity to really engage with a professor, large lectures offer no such prospects. In those cases, office hours are critical in establishing a meaningful rapport with your teacher. Don’t be intimidated by a professor’s credentials or demeanor. It is their job to teach you, so if you have a question, ask it. You’re not imposing by stopping by their office and airing out your queries. In all cases they’ll appreciate an attempt to seriously engage the material. As an aside, anecdotal evidence also suggests a grade bump for those who pursue one-on-one conversation with their professors. (This applies only if you’re asking, you know, actual questions. Please don’t go to office hours to discuss the weather).

Don’t rely too heavily on course evaluations. They’re worth checking out, and can be an easy filter to find classes worth pursuing, but you shouldn’t take them very seriously. Half the time someone will write something along the lines of, “This professor was completely apathetic about the class and did not care about the students,” only to be followed by another’s account which will boldly declare, “This was the best professor I’ve ever had at the University of Chicago; he was just really excited about the material and really concerned with making sure students understood what he was talking about.” At the very least, it remains an open question how much extraneous factors—like being an easy grader—can contribute to getting outstanding reviews.

On a similar note, audit and shop for classes. You have the opportunity, in the first two weeks of every quarter, to add/drop classes at will. This is an earth-shattering power, and few things feel as good as deciding you hate a class and dropping it without consequence. Feel free to sit in on that entomology class, or that one crazy-looking course on Tolkien. If it’s a dream come true and the teacher is incredible, pink-slip in. It’s a more reliable way of telling whether you will like a professor than reading scattershot evaluations.

Try not to focus too much on the big names. To put it simply: Just because a professor is really famous does not mean his or her class will be edifying. In many cases, that simply will not be the case, and all you’ll end up doing is paying for the privilege of being able to say, “I took a class with famous professor X.”  That satisfaction lasts for about three seconds, and then you start wishing you had taken a genuinely gratifying class. Being a hotshot academic does not make a great teacher, and though many are both, never succumb to the fame game when so much more is at stake in your education.

Yes, there are people like Gary Becker and Martha Nussbaum and Richard Posner walking around. Bask in your proximity, but don’t confuse it with your education. Odds are you will never be taught by those people, and that’s not a bad thing. With professors, you need only keep two things in mind: They can’t answer your questions if you ask none, and their worth is entirely rooted in your own willingness to engage in what they’re saying. Also, some of them make some really, really good cookies.