How to Create Terrible Professors

Every college student, at one time or another, has endured a course with a terrible professor. A professor who reads directly from his notes, like he’s telling a very boring story. Or one who simply recites the same information found on the PowerPoint, using slightly different words. Or maybe a wannabe hip grad student who spends all her time “connecting” to students rather than imparting knowledge.

In a recent survey of freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, 44.6 percent said they were not satisfied with the quality of instruction they received. And 43.5 percent of freshmen reported “frequently” feeling bored in class.

I had my own fair share of bad professors. And after spending several years as a graduate student, I know why. There are very few standards for teaching future professors how to teach—and little pressure to meet any standards at all.

Graduate students receive very little formal teacher training. Instead, they are often thrown into a classroom full of undergraduates, where they sink, swim, or cling to various life rafts such as PowerPoint and student-led discussion.

As a first-year graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I was a teaching assistant for Introduction to American Politics. I led my first discussion sections—and graded student exams and papers—after only a single half-day orientation for future graduate teaching assistants.

I continued to lead discussion sections for a few semesters before teaching my own course. I ostensibly “observed” the professors for whom I was a TA, and I took two courses on college teaching.

The first college teaching class—through the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the School of Education—was completely useless. Course standards were so low that I was able to receive full credit simply by creating one sample syllabus and by showing up in class a few times. The second, tailored for future political science professors, was useful for issues specific to political science—such as how to present contentious political ideas and remain neutral—but it gave little general guidance.

My credentials might not be what parents expect when they send their children off for an undergraduate education. But those standards are among the highest of any department in the University of North Carolina system.

Across the state, requirements for future tenure-track faculty range from fairly substantial in certain departments at UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Wilmington, and Duke to downright shoddy at most schools in the UNC system.

The reason for the poor showing is that throughout the University of North Carolina, graduate schools have abdicated responsibility for graduate student teaching. (For those who may not know, graduate schools are separate entities at universities and they regulate many aspects of the education of graduate students.)

The graduate schools have left the responsibility to the individual departments or programs. For example, at UNC-CH, the official policy on student teaching states, “Directors of graduate study in each graduate program are best informed to make these judgments on an individual basis….” The Graduate Teaching Assistant Guidelines of the UNC-CH Center for Faculty Excellence state, “At UNC-Chapel Hill departments are encouraged to develop their own programs to prepare their graduate students for teaching.”

That would be fine if each department instituted rigorous standards. But many departments do not. Graduate students often begin teaching with no formal lessons in teaching at all. In most departments, teaching is an afterthought.

For example, in UNC-CH’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, graduate students undergo a short orientation, and are often observed, but they take no teaching courses before entering the classroom as teachers or teaching assistants. Courses at the Center for Faculty Excellence are “strongly encouraged,” but not required.

Instead of leaving teaching standards in the hands of individual departments, graduate schools should adopt the following guidelines, allowing individual departments to implement them.

Schools should provide:

• More opportunities for public speaking. Most of what professors do in the classroom is public speaking. Becoming more comfortable talking to an audience, and knowing how to capture their attention and effectively communicate ideas would have been very helpful early in my graduate teaching experience. A public speaking course tailored to future professors would be ideal.
• A dedicated professor-mentor. Having a dedicated person of to whom one can ask questions, and whose job it is to answer them, would help every graduate student. This person could be the same as the student’s research advisor, but doesn’t have to be.
• Guidance on exams and assignments. Learning to write exam questions and design term papers and syllabi takes time, and sometimes a few mistakes. Learning from others’ experience would help new graduate students to create effective measurement tools and to grade fairly and efficiently. A bank of materials—old assignments, syllabi, and exams with grading rubrics—provided by the department would be a good start.
• Practice, practice, practice. The first time I walked into a discussion section, it was as a TA. I had never attended one, and had no idea what the students expected of me, or what I was supposed to do. Practice in leading discussions and simply talking to students would have saved me unnecessary floundering during that first semester.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s economics department has a program that could be used as a model. The department of economics at UNC-CH annually conducts a Teacher Training Program for graduate teaching assistants and new faculty. Professor Michael Salemi also directs a Teaching Innovations Program, sponsored by the American Economics Association Committee on Economic Education and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The project includes residential teaching workshops that began in the spring of 2005, a program of follow-on instruction that helps participants introduce interactive teaching strategies into their own courses, and a set of opportunities for graduate students to participate in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Graduate departments and graduate schools should recognize that they are doing more than training future researchers. They are training professors who will teach future generations of undergraduates. A sink-or-swim policy simply doesn’t cut it.