Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Finding Good Professors

It is now the time of year when students have to decide which courses they will take next semester. It is common at times such as this for students to ask about which professors to take. Questions such as these are always a bit tricky to answer.

At the lower levels, there is often little to say. Courses are taught by graduate students. Although news about their teaching does filter back, they are often not around long enough for information to remain current. Other lower level courses are taught by instructors. On these we can get some feedback from students. The information is not always entirely reliable though, as different students respond better, or worse to different teaching styles.

It is at the upper level courses that things get a bit more interesting. Students spread information and opinions around amongst themselves. We can get some ideas by asking the students. This is not always a fool proof method, but should patterns appear, these can be trusted sometimes. Tools like RateMyProfessors.com can be a bit of help, but again, they are not without limitations.

One method I have used in the past is to recommend professors I know and who seem to be smart and reasonable. This turns out not to be a reliable method either. In one case, there was another faculty member I knew quite well and recommend to several students. Eventually, one of my students told me that this professor was bad, unreliable and seldom prepared. This admission came a semester after the fact, as the student had decided initially not to say anything. They knew that I was friends with the other professor and were thus reticent.

These methods are all ok, but limited. They are also hard to apply when it comes to cases when students need to take courses in departments with which I have minimal interactions. To this end though, I have developed some rules of thumb. These rules of thumb are also useful for students who are considering graduate schools.

It has been my experience that good professors are also reasonable researchers. Although some professors do not do any research and focus their efforts on teaching, these professors are easy to spot, as they usually have high teaching loads and teach a lot of lower level courses. However, at upper levels, if a professor does not have any recent publications in an area, then this should be seen as a red flag. Active researchers are far more likely to be up to date. Although we all occasionally have to teach outside our real areas of expertise, publications on a topic (or indeed, any topic) are the best guide to who are likely to be the good professors.

With the growth of web usage, it is now often easy to find lists of a professor's recent publications on the department web site. When trying to determine which professor to take, check for these first. If a professor has not published anything in the last few years, this is a bad sign. Remember, once a professor has tenure, they cannot be sacked. This means that many universities will have a few bad professors on their faculty. Checking for recent publications is a good method to avoid these individuals. Also be wary of professors who like to pretend that they know it all. This is especially the case if their rank is only Assistant Professor. Any professor worth their salt should be able to back up their alleged expertise with real publications. If they cannot, then this is another important red flag. Remember, professors can be posers too.

Another important clue comes from seeing whether a professor reads papers at conferences and the like. These too should often be listed on department web sites. Although things can get tricky, when travel funding is scarce, most 'real' professors will be able to give presentations at least at near by institutions. If a professor can give successful professional presentations, then it is likely that they will be able to present clearly in the classroom.

Although none of the suggestions here are perfect, they provide some guidelines that can help students find reasonable teachers. I hope that this is helpful. As always, other comments and suggestions are welcome.

The CP

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