Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What is a professor?

I was an adjunct professor for five years. It was fun. I finally quit due to the glass ceiling made of pure optical fibers with total internal reflection (a concept I taught in my networking class!) The all male department hired their male students based on the buddy system. I didn't stand a chance coming from industry where hiring decisions are based on qualifications. I got stuck teaching the same class over and over and over again.

So, I got to wondering, what does make a good professor? What qualifications should hiring managers actually look for? Is it about being friendly to the department chair, blowing your own horn, showing off in the lecture hall, playing politics with the powerful tenured faculty, keeping quiet in faculty meetings so as not to make waves? I don't think so. I think a good professor is someone with teaching abilities and skills who cares about students. Here are some characteristics I came up with for being a good professor. 
  • A talent for teaching. Yes, I think it's a talent. My father (shown in the picture above) was a professor for over 30 years until he retired. He still tries to engage us in scholasticism when we visit, questioning every statement we make. My mother was also a professor, as was my aunt. In fact, all my aunts and uncles were teachers. My family is riddled with them. My nieces are professors and teachers. If we aren't teachers, then we're librarians or musicians. That's what we do. It's an inherited trait.
  • Teaching skills. Some aspects of teaching are learned skills, not just talents. You can be taught how to lead an engaging lecture, to develop labs and homework that help students practice what they're learning, to write quizzes that fairly assess whether students have learned what you wanted them to learn, etc.
  • A love of teaching. Don't do it because you couldn't find any other work. Do it because it energizes you and your students!
  • Subject matter expertise. It's not OK to learn from the textbook at approximately the same pace that the students are learning.
  • The ability to develop labs or problem sets based on your goals for the class. It's not OK to buy a lab kit and hand students the user's manual.
  • A passion for your subject! If you get stuck teaching a subject that's not really up your alley, try to get excited about it anyway. It won't be hard. Learning is fun, even when you're the teacher.
  • Research skills. I didn't work in a department that did much research, but I add it here because I know universities consider it important. I did research to make sure I was prepared to teach. I did research in order to write my books, even modeling network traffic and doing statistics like real academicians. But I haven't posed a research question, developed methods to answer it, gathered and analyzed data, and drawn new conclusions, etc. I was just an adjunct. :-) How important is research in a definition of a "good professor?"
  • An ability to see the big picture and to focus on the entire curriculum, not just your class. What do you want students to be able to do upon completing your four-year program? What skills and knowledge do successful graduates possess?
  • A focus on the learner rather than the teacher. You have to care about how your students' brains work more than you care about your own brain and how cute you look in your new tweed jacket. (I had a cute green corduroy jacket but no tweed. :-)
  • Good listening skills. You should be able to interact with students one-on-one, not just en masse in a lecture hall. Get to know your students. Learn their names, their hang-ups, their strengths and weakness. If you see a student hyperventilating due to stress when taking a test, help her breathe and relax.
  • A sense of humor. Lectures that are funny lead to more learning. A sense of humor helps when grading papers too.
  • Humility. Teaching is a powerful position. Students will look up to you even if you're an idiot. Use this power wisely.
  • A big heart, full of compassion and empathy. Sometimes the dog really did eat the homework, or the squirrel might have actually eaten through the cable modem line, cutting off Internet access. It happens.


  1. That a superb teacher like you would run into a glass ceiling just pisses me off. Somewhere out there is a college whose students are missing out on a fantastic education because their administration is too gender-biased and myopic to retain one of the best instructors I know. I still count it as one of my coolest achievements to have been mentioned in the acknowledgments in your TDND book! I count you and Howard as my two primary mentors, so I take it personally that you would be treated like that.


  2. You know, I would love to have a word with the dean of the institution...

    This is a great article! I have been fortunate to have had some great professors. You have been among the very few that I consider a mentor.

    I a person that plans on continuing on to a Ph.D... so I have had and will continue to have "ones whom teach the essentials" But I think that the essentials are only the beginning to learning the ropes. What can a professor offer more than just the facts? Could there be more "speculative meandering"? YES! Anything that gets the old noodle cooking is great! The "status quo" has a selected position in my life - the trash can. I have to be able as a student to take what I have learned and then expand. Any good teacher will support that and not base the modus operandi on a preset level of thinking. If you can't challenge me, go back to the podium. I will look elsewhere for my education. If you start a class with a joke about a damn dog that can talk and says "Router RIP", then you have my full and undying attention! (wow, that was great, by the way). If I do not see a love in your eyes in and your tone when teaching me, please go home.

    I have often thought about teaching because I truly love the subjects I dive into. I love being able to spurt new ideas from an old system! Thanks Priscilla for all you do.