5.1 Final Thoughts -- About Your Instructor
It goes without saying that your instructor is a human being and ought to be treated as such. This much said, you will find that the majority of your instructors, for one reason or another, do not fit this description. They seem to have other things on their mind---departmental meetings, the publish or perish mental framework, the fact that they have to teach three courses per semester, personal problems. The list goes on and on. In other words, these professors do not want you to know that they are human beings. For many instructors, students are little more than a hindrance to their more important work, the work which gets them noticed and hopefully, a job at a more prestigious university. These instructors are not bad sorts of people. They just seem to have forgotten what teaching history is all about. It's just my opinion.
I've got to admit, in four years as an undergraduate and five in graduate school (a total of 70 classes with perhaps 40 professors), I probably encountered no more than a handful of professors who really cared about their students. These are the special instructors, the ones who change the lives of their students. They're not teaching for the prestige or the money (God forbid!). Rather, they teach because they love to teach. And that, for me, is what makes a good professor.
Let's look at just a few examples.
Scenario 1: You walk into your Western Civilization I class and there might be three hundred people in the room. The professor stands rigid, hiding behind the podium. He reads his lectures automatically, no weight given to one thing or another. He's just going through the motions. He needs to complete a task oblivious to the fact that the task might have some intrinsic merit. You leave the room 90 minutes later having slept, doodled and learned nothing. You attend the section meeting with your teaching assistant and 30 of your classmates and find that your TA seems to care more about your understanding of the material. (Of course, there are lousy TAs as well.)
Scenario 2: Same class, different professor. The professor is animated, energetic, interested and interesting. After all, it's his job not only to teach Western Civilization but also to captivate a decidedly large audience. He lectures about his topic but he also talks to you. He catches your eye, even way up there in the 12th row. He sees you. A bond is formed. You trust him. He accepts you as a student, his student, and it's his job to educate you, to stimulate you and force you to think. You go to your section meeting with a different attitude, you can't wait to go and discuss ideas. A much better experience overall.
Scenario 3: You are enrolled in a class called A History of Modern Russia. There are fifteen people in the class. It's the first day of school. Your instructor walks in, glancing at no one. He stops at the board and writes feverishly for ten minutes. The political structure of the Soviet Communist Party, c.1960. He stops, walks to the lectern and begins a lengthy discourse on the sad state of university education. Students are ill-prepared to tackle such a difficult course. He then goes on to enumerate the fundamentals of the course. One unexcused absence and you lose a half a grade. Papers must be on time or else lose another half a grade. He sets the tone of the class for the duration. At the end of the period, he has his notes neatly packed away and leaves the room as quickly as he had entered it. The next class meeting, there are only seven people in attendance.
Scenario 4: Same class. A different professor. He smiles as he walks in the room, disarming those with any fears. He explains the objective of the course, hands out the syllabi and asks questions. He listens. He tells the class something about himself. He's human, after all. The class will be difficult, probably more difficult than any other class you've ever taken. But, let's have fun. Let's learn. Let's learn to think and challenge our own ideas. After all, is the history of twentieth century Russia THAT important? In the big picture, that is? No, the most important thing to learn is not the "stuff" of history, but something about ourselves. Self-improvement is what this professor is after. Self-improvement of the student and the professor.
Okay, four scenarios. There are others, of course. My point is that it is the instructor who takes the time to know his students who usually ends up with a better class, a better class defined as one in which students learn more and have a better time learning overall. In a word, the professor will make or break your experience in the history classroom. You have to help as well. Take part in discussions, come to class prepared, ask questions and treat everyone in the room, your professor included, as intellectual equals.
You see, it's all a question of the proper attitude. Classes only "work" when everyone approaches the material with the proper attitude. Since education is nothing more than a dialogue between the instructor and the instructed, then all those concerned must be prepared and willing to engage in the wonderful process of self-improvement.
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Copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis