With the thought and plan to one day become a professor in mind, and being back in the settings of a classroom a year after my graduation from GSIS, I ponder quite often about what it would mean to be a ‘good professor’.
Whereas I had often focused on ‘what not to do’ as a professor up until now, these days I try to think more about ‘what to do’ and ‘what to be’ (which doesn’t mean it actually works).
I do think that teaching and ‘professing‘ are different from being smart from an objective point of view. Of course, usually, and hopefully, it is the smart ones that become professors, or rather, you have to be kind of smart to become a professor (I just implied I may somewhat have a chance at being qualified as smart). But when it comes to passing along what you know and the things you are smart about to others much younger and much more inexperienced in all facets of life, that’s a different matter.
But being a professor also implies that you are in constant interaction with the ‘young’uns’. At some level, you have to be open to their new ideas, enough to nod along and encourage the creative yet ‘viable’ ones but strict enough to put a stop to the ‘crazier’ ideas before they get too big in their heads. And believe me, university students, both undergrads and grads (especially grads actually) ARE big-headed (here is a very plausible explanation as to why I could have possibly made the previous implication that I was smart so casually). You don’t necessarily have to join their ‘fun’ activities all the time (actually, make sure you DON’T join them all the time after class hours, even if they tell you they would *love* to have you there), but being a nice person before being a good professor does count a lot from the students’ point of view.
I have concluded there are four types of professors. Picture a graph with four different parts, divided along the spectrum of ‘Not nice’ to ‘Nice’ in one axis and ‘Not teaching well’ and ‘Teaching well’ on the other. Got it?
The most ideal would of course be professors who are both Nice and Teaching Well. Hopefully, they know enough about their field of study, and on top of that, they inspire students to learn more and to make their subject interesting. They are jolly enough to take on their jokes and casual pleasantries, but they also know when and how to be serious. Their classes are a delight to be in because not only do they convey their knowledge with a pinch of wisdom in an organized manner, but they also inspire their students to want to know and explore more, and take their class again next semester. I have been fortunate enough to have met teachers who did belong in this category, and I think in a way, they are the reasons that pushed me to pursue a PhD.
The worst type is obviously the ones that are at the end of the ‘Not nice’ and ‘Not teaching well’ spectrum. Unfortunately, I have also met people belonging in this category (especially one comes to mind… still haunts me in my dreams sometimes) and he/she is the main ‘model’ I would refer to to find everything I ‘should NOT do’ as a professor. So in a way, he/she has been helpful, I guess, because sometimes, knowing what NOT to do is just as helpful as knowing what TO do. And at least, I have the sweet relief that I already hit rock bottom in this area and everything will only be better from now on. They’re those professors who have the nastiest personality upon which many caricatures are based on, they don’t feel connected to students at any level (Why the choice of job then? I don’t know, prestige, security, intelligence, pick one), and they basically make everyone’s life miserable. That doesn’t mean they are not smart, in fact, most of the professors who belong in this category ARE smart, even very smart, and I guess that’s what makes them even worse. And on top of all this, they make their classes the most boring thing one would ever experience.
Before this worst category, there is one just as bad, but a bit better, those who are Not nice but Teach well. Unfortunately, this category is often the ‘realistically impossible’ one, that people just say there is, for theory’s or methodology’s sake. It is my personal experience that if you know and believe that a professor is not a nice person, there is no way you will like his/her class. Of course, he/she may be a great professor who really knows his/her stuff and also knows how to convey it to you… in theory. And in theory, you can objectively judge him/her based on his/her professional capacity as a professor and give a positive assessment. Unfortunately, in practice, it is rare to have any kind of ‘objective judgement’ (the combination of these two words already being an oxymoron) and your head will think what your heart feels. You would only rarely hear (I want to say ‘never’) “Oh my god I HATE this professor but gosh I absolutely LOVE his/her class!” You would have to be someone EXTREMELY fair to find someone who fits in this category. And then, well, respect to you.
The one category that is left is the professor who is Nice but unfortunately doesn’t know how to Teach well. This is the saddest category I think, the one I feel most sorry for, because, besides the fact that my fear is that I will belong in this category, I have noticed that many professors who do belong in this category actually love teaching. They enjoy the interaction with the students and they are passionate about their fields of study. It’s just that… some people are just not born to teach. It’s as simple as that. And because it’s so simple, it’s sadder. Of course you may try, since teaching is also a ‘skill’, but well, I don’t know if success is guaranteed. But you get at least sympathy points from your students. “Well, I don’t know about his/her classes, but he/she is a great person, and smart”. And I don’t know, sometimes, I feel that if you had a choice to make, being a good person would be better than being a good professor.
Of course, “O Captain, my Captain” would be everyone’s dream, both in terms of becoming one and knowing one.
I do hope I will be inspiring enough as a professor and kind enough as a person. And maybe I will be one of those who are Nice but do Not teach well at first (for lack of experience, not for lack of natural propensity, hopefully). But with time and experience, maybe I can at least get a hint of the taste of the satisfaction, pride, inspiration and rewarding feeling of belonging in the ‘ideal category’.
And because, despite the frequent equation of “nice = incompetent”, I do believe that many horrible things in this world are due to a lack of simple genuine kindness and niceness, no matter what happens, I hope to remember to always be a “nice person”.