How to Evaluate College Professors

As we discussed yesterday afternoon in The Writing Life, one way to get a good read on a college or university — and, more specifically, on a department or program within a college or university — is to take a close look at its professors. But if you don’t know what you’re looking for, that can be more difficult than it sounds. 

What follows are some things to keep in mind when you’re scrolling through the faculty profiles of a school/program you’re interested in.

TENURE: After a college hires a professor, he or she usually goes through a probationary period that lasts in the neighborhood of six years. In that time, the newly hired prof — who enters with the rank of Assistant Professor — has a chance to show that she/he is a good fit.  All goes well, he/she gets tenure and is promoted to the rank of Associate Professor, which means he/she is no longer probationary and he/she has a lot more job security. The concept of tenure comes from the idea that scholars should have intellectual autonomy without having to worry too much about someone firing them for studying, writing, or saying something controversial. Simply put, once a prof gets tenure, it’s very hard to get rid of her/him.

That’s why colleges are very careful about granting tenure and professors have to excel in several different areas if they’re going to get it.

The best way for you to “evaluate” a professor is by using the same criteria that a tenure committee would use. Those criteria are based in three separate (but related) areas: teaching, research, and service. As a rule, a good professor — tenured or not — strikes a good balance between all three.

TEACHING: This one would seem to fall in the “duh” category. College professors teach. They need to be good at it. With that said, it’s not a given that all profs see their teaching as their primary focus. The challenge is that it’s very hard for a prospective student to know which profs are also committed to excellence in their teaching and which ones are more focused on other areas. They’re not going to announce on the website, “Hey, you know, teaching’s okay and all, but I’m way more amped up about my research and the fact that I’ve got a sabbatical coming next fall!”   

The first (very) general clue about a prof’s commitment to undergraduate teaching is whether she/he teaches at a small liberal arts school or a large research university.

In general, liberal arts schools put a little more emphasis on teaching (as opposed to research and service) when making tenure decisions. Hence professors at liberal arts schools have an even more vested interest in demonstrating the quality of their teaching, especially those who are still working toward tenure. Those sorts of schools are also a little more likely to attract professors who are really energized by that atmosphere: smaller classes that are intensely focused on undergraduate education. On a related side note: if the prof went to a liberal arts college for undergrad, it suggests he/she is a proponent of that sort of approach; it’s in her/his blood. In fact, lots of times, liberal arts colleges like to hire profs who went to liberal arts colleges for that very reason. They “get it.”

With that said, large research universities know that some people have this (mis)perception — that the atmosphere for teaching and learning is better at small, liberal arts colleges — and a lot of them are taking steps to emphasize the ways they too are focused on undergraduate teaching/learning. One way they’re doing that is with the “school within a school” concept. So-called “living-learning communities” like the Blount Undergraduate Initiative at UA as well as innovative Honors programs like the one at UAB are pretty common now. They’re all intended to put the focus on individualized teaching and learning, even at a big school with lots of students.

If you’re looking at a research university prof’s profile and you see that he/she is actively involved in one of these “schools-within-a-school,” that’s a good clue that he/she is A) really energized by teaching undergrads and B) probably pretty good at it because those gigs are usually seen as plums and therefore tend to go to profs who’ve clearly demonstrated their mad teaching skillz.

A final note: I hope it goes without saying that there are a ton of great teachers at large universities, and it would be naive to think there aren’t some mediocre teachers at liberal arts colleges. I’m really just speaking in more general terms about institutional atmosphere and emphasis.

A second clue: course loads. How many classes per semester does the prof teach?

A heavy course load for a prof is four courses per semester. On the one hand, that almost by definition assures you that the prof is focused on teaching because there’s little time left for them to do anything else. On the other hand, that’s a LOT of teaching at the college level and, depending on class sizes, a prof teaching four courses a semester is likely to be more or less overloaded. (PS: Full-time community college professors/instructors often teach, gulp, five courses per semester. Doesn’t mean they’re not great teachers — just that they do an awful lot of teaching.)

A light load is two courses per semester. In this case, the exact opposite logic applies: less teaching likely equals more time and energy to focus on individual student needs, right? But it also gives the prof more time and energy to focus on his/her research (and family, etc). These are pretty plum gigs. They tend to be limited to research universities, and often they’re at schools that have graduate programs, so undergrads are “competing” for attention in that respect as well. Generally, these profs get a lighter teaching load because their work in the other areas (mainly their research/publications) is highly valued by the college. It doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t great teachers, but it does mean that their teaching isn’t their only vocational pursuit.   

The Goldilocks load is three courses per semester. In general, this is the course load at most liberal arts colleges. With three courses per semester, teaching takes center stage but there’s also time to pursue other related professional activities that will not only augment a professor’s work in the classroom but that can also provide students with all kinds of extracurricular learning/career opportunities.

Another thing that indicates an emphasis on undergraduate teaching is the kinds of courses a professor teaches.

It’s a good sign if tenured professors — as opposed to junior faculty, instructors, and graduate teaching assistants — teach freshman and sophomore level classes. It means that the department as a whole puts a consistently high level of emphasis on the quality of teaching in all its classes, not just the upper-level courses for majors and grad students.

RESEARCH: Research is, for the most part, what it sounds like. It can happen in a lab or a library or in “the field” and it usually results in some form of publication. An article. A book. A review. Most prof’s have an area of interest. Some have more than one. What a prof’s research tells you — if it tells you anything — is what her preoccupations are. Those preoccupations may or may not inform her teaching, but it is good insight into what kind of a thinker she is.

A writing-related caveat: with creative writing faculty, “research” primarily means the creative work they’ve published. Getting a tenure-track job teaching creative writing at a college or university is an extremely competitive proposition these days. More and more, an entry-level qualification is a published book or (increasingly) two as well as extensive publication in lit mags.

In other fields, there’s somewhat less emphasis on publishing a whole book based on a professor’s academic research but it varies from field to field and you’d be best served to ask someone who’s familiar with a given field to get a sense of what constitutes a robust commitment to research in that discipline.

With all of that said, a lightly published faculty could (could) indicate that the department/school places more emphasis on teaching than research — especially if members of the tenured faculty are lightly published. 

SERVICE: “Service” in this context isn’t the MAD Day kind of service (though lots of colleges and universities are very involved in that kind of service too). Here it refers to administrative activities a professor does in “service” of the academic community. That could be applied to the larger academic community of his or her field (e.g., presenting at national conferences and/or being active in various professional organizations) or it could be applied to campus-related activities (e.g., sponsoring the undergraduate literary magazine, serving in the faculty senate, or serving on various other committees). It’s probably toughest to get a read on this kind of activity — even for students who are actually attending the school — because a lot of it happens under the radar and it often doesn’t involve direct interaction with students.

It’s relevant to you, though, because profs who are good administrators also tend to be really good when it comes to helping you take the next step in your field after you graduate.

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