Excellent teaching should be appreciated

Williams College is currently seeking to fill 19 tenure track positions for the coming academic year. These hirings come in response to several factors, including faculty departures and newly created faculty positions. Our first response to this is to say “Hurrah,” for we love professors as much as the next guy (whom we assume loves professors). Perhaps these new positions will alleviate the class size problem, and bring an infusion of energy and excitement to a host of new classes.

In addition to inspiring in us feelings of hope and optimism, however, this announcement has gotten us thinking about what we would be looking for if we were hiring 19 new professors, and this necessarily has made us think about the professors we’ve had so far who were really wonderful. Of course, each department has specific needs it is trying to fill, and we don’t pretend to know all the details of the very complicated process that is hiring and, eventually, tenure, so it would be presumptuous and unproductive for us to offer specific hiring advice to departments. However, as a group of Williams students with a combined 55 1/2 years of experience taking classes with professors, we’ve had some extraordinary professors at Williams and we can try to describe what about these professors we found so valuable.

Each of these things may seem self-evident, but for every one of the traits we describe, we’ve had professors who were outstanding and professors who were lamentably lacking.

First, quite simply, a professor should care about what she teaches, passionately. Few arguments for the worth of a particular subject can be more compelling than the obvious impact it has had upon a particular professor. If a professor is truly engaged in her discipline, that translates into student excitement. And a professor should be able to bring the same dedication to any class she is called upon to teach.

Second, we like it when professors care about us. All Williams professors have office hours and are admirably available to talk to students. Still, there have been some professors in our careers who have really reached out, and it is these professors who will remain in our minds as mentors and models long after we’ve left and entered the worlds of high art, high finance or high school administration, to name a few.

In many ways, though, it is difficult to quantify what it is about a teacher that makes her remain vividly with a student long after schooling’s done, and for this reason it is difficult to identify and celebrate. If a professor writes a book, or receives a reward for excellence in research, this is an obvious measure of achievement in scholarship. However, there are no awards to recognize the professor who spends several hours of his time helping a student revamp a paper, no way to measure the effect a great professor has on the way students think about issues for the rest of their lives.

Because the reward for the kind of teaching we’ve experienced in our best professors surely comes not from any outside evaluating agency, but presumably from the student-teacher interactions themselves, and because there are great pressures, especially for non-tenured professors, to achieve in visible, immediately recognizable ways, we feel it is necessary to emphasize the importance of such difficult to quantify characteristics as enthusiasm, warmth and genuine, personal concern. Williams has a strong tradition of excellent teachers. It is our hope that the College can continue to recognize the importance of great teaching, both in their hirings of new professors and in their appreciation of those currently on the faculty.