How professors matter


Libby Gruner at Mama Ph.D. asks:  “Do Professors Matter?,” with respect to (yet another) study confirming that “[d]espite the hand-wringing of cultural conservatives, it appears that most college students are not indeed blank slates on whom radical professors simply write their left-wing politics; rather, students self-select into disciplines that tend to confirm their political biases.”  In other words, even if we saw our primary jobs as evangelists for a political worldview, it wouldn’t matter.

Her post got me thinking:  which of my professors mattered?  Maybe it’s because of my line of work, but all of the faculty members I knew in college still play a large role in my interior life.  It’s striking to think of how much I remember about them–down to their clothing, hairstyles, hearing aids, eyeglasses, catchphrases, and nervous tics.  I also remember a lot about what they taught me, both in terms of the subject matter we covered in their classes, but also about teaching (sometimes by good example, other times by showing me what NOT to do.)  It’s amazing to think of all the different personal styles and pedagogies that I was exposed to in just four short years.


I attended a small college, and was taught by a cross-section of quirky, fusty, eccentric, and brilliant (and sometimes all of the above) scholars who together embodied every stereotype of college professor you’d ever want to run into:  the brilliant archaeologist who hid his light under a bushel of timidity, and hair he must have cut himself and suits he must have stitched himself, too; the Iraqi Jewish linguist who wrote novels in Hebrew and Arabic, for fun; the cute little-old-lady language professor who was rumored to have had a wild life in her youth; the political scientist with the big, shaggy dogs in her office who was oddly unmoved by my obvious brilliance and apple-polishing; the “cool prof” in her early 30s who wore trousers and lived in an eighteenth-century townhouse in the city; the history professor who was reaaaally old and boring in class and whose hearing aid screeched unbearably when he cranked it up but who was a linguist who did top-secret work for the Allies in World War II; the hard-boiled middle-aged English prof who dished gossip along with suppers at her house on campus; the brilliant historian who was so brilliant and tortured by his perfectionism that he never managed to publish much of anything, and who held seminars in his on-campus house, cultivating gangs of upperclasswomen and men who hung on his every word and mannerism.  (We’d do impressions of this guy for laughs.  What a bunch of nerds we were!  But happy nerds, natch.)

Professors matter–but often our students won’t know how much we mattered for years down the road.  So, this is just my way of saying thanks to all of my old professors, and I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you more when I had the good fortune to have taken your classes.  I’m sorry we occasionally made fun of your hearing aids, your stuttering, your clothes, and the hair growing out of your ears.  We were young and shallow–believe me, I’m sure that I’m on the receiveing end of some epic karma on that front now.  And although I probably could have studied harder, you can see that I was paying attention.


All images by Elizabeth Shippen Green

0 thoughts on “How professors matter

  1. Some of the professors who most shaped my thinking today were also some of the ones who I disliked the most when I was in their class. Why? Because they forced me to actually think about things critically. Unlike the “fun” profs, who thought every student paper was brilliant, those folks actually required real engagement. It was hard work — Work that I appreciate now.

    Then again, sometimes I look at my undergrad transcript and see classes listed that I have zero memory of taking.


  2. GayProf–great point. That’s how I feel (about the demanding proffies being the memorable ones), although I do seem to remember exactly what my course schedule was, semester-by-semester, for 8 semesters. Weird.

    And, Kathie–I’m glad you like the Green pen-and-ink drawings. Her work was all over Bryn Mawr in the early 20th C, and has been reprinted endlessly by the college for calendars, notecards, and May Day posters, etc. What I love about her images of college women is that they were nostalgic even at the moment they were drawn. She really captures the sweetness, and the worlds-we-have-lost feel that I felt at college even as I lived it.


  3. I remember so many of my college professors vividly. I went to a small liberal arts college, so one-on-one interactions with professors was possible. I was dorky enough to value professors who were hard on me – I hadn’t been a fantastic student in high school and so didn’t have a sense of myself as particularly brilliant or even “good at school”. But it turned out that I loved learning, and the higher standards I was exposed to, the greater the quality of my work. The ones I learned the most from: the no-nonsense, no-frills history prof (deeply unpopular with the brain-dead majors) who taught me about rigorous research and careful, clear writing; a couple of young, hip literature profs who showed me not only a love of lit but that there was a life after college; another literature prof who taught me the beauty of ancient texts (HOmer, Virgil, Dante); and a stunningly boring history prof who taught me that if I don’t learn at least one thing every class then the prof hasn’t failed me, I’ve failed myself (ie that my education was my responsibility – to find it, engage with it, and fight for it). From all their courses I learned that learning can, quite simply, sometimes save (and change) your life.


  4. Hmm. Interesting, on self-select. My first two years of college did in fact, approximately, coincide with significant movement along the political ideology scale, within the framework of an already-laid basic keel. I’m not sure whether the profs. or the proverbial late night dormroom bull sessions had more to do with this. And it was a time of upheaval in the culture anyway, so the control group equivalent was just not there. But I did have some of those quirky profs who were in various ways out ahead of the student body in addressing big cultural and political cleavages. This at the very least said it was o.k. to maneuver through turmoil and come out intact on the other side. In some ways, I guess, going to a liberal arts institution, to say nothing of the disciplines, is a form of self-selection. Nice post.


  5. Yet more evidence for how post-semester customer service surveys fail to provide an accurate assessment of the learning (of all sorts) that occurred during the semester.

    If someone’s favorite professors (at least in terms of valuable contributions to their education) often coincide with how disliked they were, then how can “Professor X is a horrible teacher!” really have *any* value? Especially if Professor X is later remembered as a valued instructor when her lessons become relevant 5-10 years later.

    Don’t mind me. I’m just grumpy.


  6. Maybe *you* were that PoliSci proffie with the dogs in her office who didn’t succumb to my charms as the bestest student evah, grumpy Cassandra?

    (Actually, that woman probably retired, although a surprising number of people I worked with in college who I thought were as old as Methuselah 20 years ago are still plugging away at it…)

    Oh, and I love “customer service surveys” as a synonym for “student evaluations.” I’m going to use only “customer service surveys” from now on in all official correspondance at Baa Ram U.!


  7. Alas, the irony is, nobody will get the irony, save for your own actual colleagues, Historiann. The admin-o-crats already think that’s exactly what they are, and the tuition-paying units (TPUs, as one of our admins once described them in a memo) have certainly come to think of themselves as customer-equivalents

    I like the Emo-scaleable feature of the surveys, though. Did the prof “establish major points?”: Agree, Strongly Agree, Just Slightly Agree, Basically Disagree, Less than Sure on This. As if the valuation of the value in question could objectively vary with the intensity felt by the receptor. I think we could think about going this way for objective exams too. Viz., In 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Albion: True? Very True? Entirely Too True? Essentially False? Direly False? The Very Falsest Falsehood?


  8. Historiann, feel free to use the phrase willy-nilly. I am sure I poached it from somewhere else too. 😉

    I knew the customer service surveys were essentially useless after one student (a non-major who took my required-for-the-major course in his final semester as a senior…just to torture himself, perhaps?) wrote the following comment to me in a personal statement about the course:

    “I now know[s] far more than I ever wanted to know about Discipline X!”

    He meant it (and I took it) as a joke (yet and incredibly truthful one), but then got the following from at least 3 new majors:

    “I learned nothing in this class relevant to Discipline X!”

    Were they all in the same class? Of course they were, but I knew that some of the stuff I was teaching non-major guy had already learned in his 3.5+ years at the school. You know, stuff like not using a cell phone in class, actually reading the books, showing up on time, following instructions, writing papers before the due date. You know, little, inconsequential things like that, which were torturous burdens on the fresh-twinks who felt beset upon because I actually had teaching objectives they failed to meet with their sub-par performances. Silly me for thinking that’s what grades were supposed to indicate.

    This is why I think there needs to be a massive movement to remove anonymity from these instruments so we can actually differentiate between sour grapes and actual pedagogical deficiencies. Or just ditch the surveys completely and just pay an impartial third-party to evaluate the instruction. Make it a part of the “service” requirement for faculty to evaluate each other, and give everyone credit for that hard work.

    I can dream, can’t I?


  9. I shudder at the thought I took out some misguided dissatisfaction on undeserving professors. I only remember really disliking a few, so at least I couldn’t have spread my vitriol around, and I *loved* some that challenged us and gave us creative assignments to apply the material (and I suspect there were plenty of students who did not like this approach). But I’m kind of glad I don’t remember doing any evaluations – ignorance is bliss (and I’m sure I’ve got the karma coming back at me too).


  10. For those of you teaching at Enormous State University…take heart. I attended a large, public university as an undergraduate and I remember most of my professors as vividly as those of you who attended liberal arts colleges. Perhaps I was the exception. I attended office hours, had the nerve to ask questions in huge lecture halls, etc. Having taught at small liberal arts colleges, I know that the relationship IS different, but it is not non-existent at large schools. And, for the grad students in the audience, I remember my TAs, good and bad, just as clearly.


  11. I went to a small college as well, and my professors definitely had an impact on my life. This is especially true of the professors who were smart and tough, a fact I try to remember as I start teaching courses myself.


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