2007 Education Planning Guide: Professors provide vital relationships
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They take care of students' plants and fish over spring break. They make their students want to be well-read in classical literature. They inspire their students' academic and career interests.Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Chatham College students Jennifer Grab, left, Jessica Byrd, center, and Flee Kieselhorst have found professors who inspired and helped them.
Click photo for larger image.
From Chatham College to Carnegie Mellon University, English literature to electrical engineering, these are what some students consider the marks of a good professor.
And for students testing the academic waters, professors can make or break an educational experience.
Sometimes, the most critical encounter with a professor comes in an introductory course.
"A good professor answers 'why' without someone asking it," said Aneeb Qureshi, 19, a sophomore in electrical and computer engineering at CMU. "And good professors have kids asking questions."
For Mr. Qureshi, this professor is Tom Sullivan.
After scoring a 50 percent on the first exam in Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mr. Qureshi approached Dr. Sullivan for help. Even though the class was a large lecture-style course, Dr. Sullivan knew who Mr. Qureshi was and called him by name as he helped break down the information.
"He knows the material so well and speaks with such conviction," said Mr. Qureshi, who not only learned the material but also became as excited about it as his professor. Because of this, Mr. Qureshi chose an academic concentration in Dr. Sullivan's department and selected him as his adviser.
At Point Park University, Steve Jablonski, 21, a junior, originally was a cinema and digital arts major, changed to information technology after taking Introduction to Programming with professor Fred Kitner.
"It was the way he taught," Mr. Jablonski said, describing the course as simultaneously fun, engaging and challenging. "It just opened the door for a more comfortable atmosphere for me to learn in."
But not all intro-level professors are so engaging. Some universities assign new professors or graduate students to teach introductory classes, reserving tenured professors for upper-level courses.
University of Pittsburgh sophomore Laura Seman, 20, can testify why this does not always work.
Ms. Seman took Introduction to Philosophy to fill a general education requirement for her English literature and English writing majors. The graduate student assigned to teach it, she said, was "very arrogant and inaccessible."
"People rave about the Pitt philosophy department, but I'm so turned off because it was such a bad experience," she said.
However, the Introduction to Critical Reading course went a little differently. Her instructor, associate professor Philip Smith, related classic literature to music and philosophy, and he encouraged her by writing a lot of comments on her papers. This personal approach led Ms. Seman to add a second major in English literature.
"He made it interesting and at the same time, challenging," she said. "I wanted to work harder at that class. He made me want to be well-versed in canonical literature."
The same trend appears with some Chatham College students.
Sophomore Jessica Byrd, 20, picked up an African-American studies minor because she was so impressed with a first-year seminar instructor, assistant professor Anissa Wardi. She describes Dr. Wardi, who directs the Cultural Studies and African American Studies program, as a "lifelong learner" who is eager to hear what students have to say in class.
"She's so engaging. After class, I want to pick her brain," said Ms. Byrd, a political science major. "I figured if I'm going to keep taking her classes, I might as well add it to my degree."
Regardless of the course level, though, students agree that a good professor is one who makes personal connections inside -- and outside -- the classroom.
During class, good professors "explain things in a different way than our textbook," said Duquesne senior Allyn Susko, 21. Ms. Susko, a biology major with a concentration in physical therapy, said the best professors put lessons into terms that help her understand how she will apply them after school.
Beyond exams and textbook lessons, students agree that good professors also reach out to them outside of the classroom.
"I think the epitome of a good professor is that you can walk into their office and talk about anything," said Jennifer Grab, 22, a senior in political science at Chatham College.
Flee Kieselhorst, 20, a Chatham junior majoring in visual arts, agreed. Ms. Kieselhorst once had a professor take care of her plants and guppies over spring break.
She said some of the best professors keep up on students' lives by attending extracurricular activities, such as sports events, theater performances and art shows.
At Point Park, some professors even put their home phone numbers and instant messenger screen names on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester.
One place students leave anonymous comments and ratings about their instructors is the Web site, www.ratemyprofessors.com.
Some of the comments are:
"BORING! But I learned there are 137 tiles on the ceiling."
"I would have been better off using the tuition money to heat my apartment last winter."
"It's like word-of-mouth online," said Rob Roseen, 22, a senior in broadcasting at Point Park. Mr. Roseen said students at Point Park visit such Web sites to see if a class is worth taking.
But as students get more involved in their academic programs, they do not have as much liberty to shop for a professor.
"If there's a professor you don't like, you're in trouble," Ms. Byrd said, referring to the number of faculty in her program.
When this happens, most students say they rely on tutors, friends and teaching assistants for help. Others rely on themselves.
Some students who are looking for an easy class at Point Park will drop a class just because of the syllabus, said Mr. Roseen.
"They'll make assumptions about the teacher based on how many assignments they give," he said. "The challenge is on the students to get to know the professor."
First Published February 14, 2007 12:00 am