O-Issue 2013: Professors

More doctors than you can find in a hospital.

By Marina Fang

Professors here do pretty incredible things: They write best-selling books, conduct groundbreaking research, consult for policy makers, and sometimes, they even get elected president of the United States. But in a place full of notable names and an international reputation, it can be easy to mistake notoriety for quality. Just because a professor is famous doesn’t mean he or she will provide what the University likes to tout as a world-class education. And learning is always a two-way street: The more you engage in your academic experience, the more fruitful it will be. Here are some tips for dealing with professors:

Office hours are vital to getting the most out of your classes. They allow you to develop meaningful relationships with professors (or TAs), particularly in large lecture-based classes in which you are unlikely to get a lot of face time with the professor, and take different forms for every subject. You can ask questions you were too afraid to ask in class (though you should never be afraid to ask questions in class!), go over assignments, bounce around ideas for a paper, or clarify missed exam questions. Professors are required to set aside time specifically devoted to meeting with their students, so don’t be shy about taking advantage of that time. Even if you don’t need help with anything specific, office hours are a chance for the professor to appreciate that you are paying attention to the material and have an interest in the course. It may also result in a slight grading advantage: When assigning grades, the professor will be able to put a face to a name and might recall an interesting conversation he/she had with you that made a positive impression (but no guarantees).

Course evaluations are not the be-all and end-all. Course evaluations should be taken with a grain of salt. Evaluations often suffer from response bias: Students who loved the class are inclined to respond with a glowing review of the professor, and students who absolutely hated the class will write a scathing diatribe defiling the professor. Here’s an example: For the same course, one student complained that the professor “made the class almost entirely lecture-based,” while another celebrated the fact that the professor “did a good job incorporating discussion into a larger lecture-style class.” To avoid the pitfalls of inconsistent evaluations, it helps to try out different sections of the course during the first week of the quarter, especially for Hum, Sosc, and Civ classes and other discussion-based courses. Some professors are extremely adept at facilitating discussion, others not so much. But the only way to find out is to experience it for yourself if you can. Barring the ability to acquire a time-turner and go to overlapping sections, if everyone in a class evaluated it similarly, that’s a good bet—and if you’re on the fence, all-around positive evaluations can help tip the scales toward a topic you might not have tried otherwise.

Younger, less experienced professors are sometimes just as good as seasoned veterans. You might not get to take a class with that renowned professor who has been at UChicago since before your parents were born, at least not right away. But fear not: Younger professors might provide an equally enriching experience as their older colleagues. Although senior professors do teach Core classes, those classes are also commonly assigned to high-level graduate students close to completing their Ph.D.s, post-doctoral fellows fresh out of graduate school, or recently hired assistant professors. They can provide fresh, new insights on age-old texts and concepts. Young professors often have boundless enthusiasm for their academic interests and course subjects. They also tend to be less intimidating, so it might be easier to strike up a conversation with them after class. That’s not to say that seasoned professors are intimidating, but they can seem that way at first. Young professors generally have more time to devote to their students, as they have fewer side projects and other appointments. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re much closer in age to their students, helping them to relate better to your circumstances.