September 17, 2011

O-Issue 2011: Professors

Whether they’ve won a Nobel Prize, write for The New Republic, or have a curriculum vitae the size of a small book, scores of notable faculty at the University of Chicago are at your disposal. You might as well see for yourself—their names often appear as the attributions of quotes in national newspapers, and it’s hard to talk politics without mentioning someone who taught here. If you’re a regular first year, excited to learn from some of the greatest minds in America, you’ve probably already looked up the well-known faculty teaching here.

So instead of reiterating what the University’s website has to say, here are a few pieces of advice for dealing with professors, based largely on my own experiences.

Go to office hours and have lots of questions ready with you. If you have gotten the chance to take a class with a famous professor (this, from my experience, is likelier to happen in humanities classes than in others), then it’s like trying to date Ryan Gosling: Odds are the class will be a large lecture and you won’g get very much time, if any, to talk to the professor one-on-one in the classroom. Face time will allow you to interact meaningfully and maybe even develop a relationship with the professor. Don’t be too nervous when talking to him or her; the professor will seem intimidatingly brilliant, but if he or she is teaching a class, you have every right to ask questions and discuss the material. In every class I’ve taken here, professors have been more than willing to answer questions and explain material. So don’t be shy or nervous. For the more cynical among you, here is one final reason to go to office hours and ask the professors questions: Anecdotal evidence suggests that professors will look on those who attend office hours favorably when it’s time for grades (But only if you have actual questions to ask and issues to discuss. It’s an awful idea to just show up to talk about the weather).

Do not rely too heavily on course evaluations. They are certainly worth checking out and reading, but you shouldn’t take them very seriously. Half the time someone will write something along the lines of, “This professor was completely apathetic about the class and did not care about the students,” only to be followed by another’s account which will boldly declare, “This was the best professor I’ve ever had at the University of Chicago; he was just really excited about the material and really concerned with making sure students understood what he was talking about.” At the very least, it remains an open question how much extraneous factors—like being an easy grader—can contribute to getting outstanding reviews. So be skeptical of evaluations.

Shop for classes. You have the opportunity, at the start of every quarter, to attend a lecture or two in order to decide whether you want to sign up for a course; take advantage of this. It’s a more reliable way of telling whether you will like a professor than reading evaluations.

Try not to focus too much on the big names. It does not follow that just because a professor is really famous, his or her class will be edifying. In many cases, that simply will not be the case, and all you’ll end up doing is paying for the privilege of being able to say, “I took a class with famous professor X.” Being a well-known academic does not imply being a great teacher, and you should always keep this in mind whenever you hear yourself saying, “I want to take Professor Y’s class—she is really famous.”

Sometimes though, many of the most famous faculty members at the U of C probably won’t have anything to do with you. The odds are high that an economics major will never actually see Gary Becker or Robert Lucas, let alone take a class with them. I am a math major, and I will never have a conversation with either of the two Fields medalists in the department. This isn’t a big deal: Often the award-winning faculty members are just to brilliant to interact with people of lower intelligence. Odds are the professors you take classes with will be terrific teachers. Just don’t expect to always be surrounded by Nobel laureates while at the U of C.

Take advantage of the opportunities you are provided with, and I can guarantee you that, come graduation, you will be able to look back and say that you made the most of your college experience.