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Which subjects demand the best teachers?

A fascinating discussion at Marginal Revolution: for  which subjects does the quality of a teacher make a huge difference?

One interesting commenter:

This reminds me of something my dad (a CS prof at a flagship state university) told me when I was leaving for college. He suggested that there were some fields that lent themselves to self-study, and that I should avoid taking classes in those departments, because I would do so at the expense of taking courses where I would benefit from a live instructor. I think history was one of his examples.

Looking back, I’d probably think about my dad’s dichotomy somewhat differently. Rather than believing that some fields are easier for auto-didacts, I’d say that there are some subjects that I knew were intrinsically interesting, and the marginal value of live instruction was probably lower, to me, in those fields. By the age of 21 I had voluntarily read many books about history but zero about non-linear optimization. Perhaps for that reason my OR class on optimization was mind-blowing– the prof might only have been average on an absolute scale, but he was good enough to interest me in material that I would not have pursued on my own, so his value to me was much higher than perhaps the best history teacher might have been.

There are several ways to answer this question:

  1. did the teacher sustain your interest in a subject where it is often difficult to stay interested?
  2. did the teacher inspire your curiosity and enthusiasm after class was over?
  3. would you have been able to learn this subject on your own without the teacher’s help?
  4. Did the teacher make the class fun?
  5. Did the teacher make you accomplish a lot without it feeling too much like work?
  6. Did the teacher’s organization of the class maximize  class time?
  7. Was the choice of class material wisely chosen?

I really need to weigh in here with my favorite teachers. First, I stopped taking a lot of hard math and sciences in college, so I rarely had tough or specialized classes. However, once I left college I took several challenging classes at community colleges. One problem with technical subjects is that if you fall behind at the beginning, that makes it harder for you to understand later lessons. A good class (in my opinion) would not be so cumulative.

Another thing is that I am more likely to enjoy classes in which I am moderately good at. I am less likely to appreciate classes I suck at. Yet, those classes may be important and it may be therefore critical to have a highly qualified teacher for.

Here are some of my favorite teachers over time. The individuals here are crucial to the class, but I am describing the class because the class is more important than the teacher. A great teacher can still teach an awful class (and vice versa).

  • Comparative Politics. In high school, I had a great  teacher who cobbled together a class and assigned a lot of fascinating outside readings. He was also hard, but he had so many fun anecdotes that you were always learning a lot about different cultures.
  • Asian Religions. A professor taught a class using 20 years of class notes and lots of tricks. Perhaps he had each lesson down too pat; perhaps any class can be compelling if you teach it long enough. But I learned a lot in that class, and even though it was hard, it didn’t seem hard or overwhelming.
  • Theology. I took a great class on theology at a Catholic school. It was taught by a colorful man with lots of interest in morality, psychology and relationships. Plus, this man had a marvelous background in teaching creative thinking. Every class was a delight. I always remember how the xeroxes were always different colors. Almost every class begin with a KYZU (short for Keep Your Zipper Up), which was a short humorous lesson about sexual abstinence.  Seriously, we all had a good time.
  • Conversational German. I had a fantastic German professor at Trinity who was warm and fun and knowledgeable about German literature. The problem was, my German sucked and I kept falling behind.  Also, he was a very formal instructor…and this was college. But I felt such affinities for the man that I kept with it for a while. Actually though I am not talking about this man but a woman who taught a 12 week class at the local Goethe Institute. She was young and pretty but very fun. She made me realize how much fun a foreign language could be. I always remember how music was always playing when we entered the room (it reduced the stress level, she said).
  • Continental Fiction. I took a great literature student with the Dean of Students at Trinity …who was a laugh riot. Besides being eloquent, she knew how to organize group discussions effective without the class going awry.
  • Introduction to Philosophy. I loved philosophy, but I ended up taking an intro class which I thought was going to be better than it was. The teacher wasn’t bad, but he went through all the material effortlessly. He managed to lead (half-hearted) class discussions. After I finished, I realized just how much material we had gone through – and none of it felt hard! I had assumed that the teacher was dumbing the subject down. Later, after I took classes with other philosophy teachers – most of which were abtruse and dull. This Intro teacher had a light touch and never got me bogged down. (To be fair, an Intro class must be easier to teach than an upperclassman one).

Oddly, I’ve taken a lot of computer training classes, but haven’t found any of them particularly remarkable (I took an Ubuntu training class – sort of, and that was great, but the class was unusual for various reasons).  One reason computer classes are not usually worth noting is  that you are usually being taught straight from a book, and the quality of the class depends on the classroom material. The teacher’s role is essentially to be interesting enough so that students don’t fall asleep. No, I’m being unfair. I’ve taken programming and system administration classes where the teacher did a good job solving problems and keeping students ontrack.

Perhaps I subscribe to the philosophy that classes shouldn’t seem hard; that’s nice for a liberal arts student say, but it’s not so easy for a science major. But I would love to go back to school and take the hard science courses I used to be so afraid – and see if they were really so hard.

Oddly, I am not including any  graduate classes here. Each class was special and remarkable in its own way, but I think the high caliber of students contributed to the experience. Also, I have taken several technical workshops which have overall been great. But they’re not classes; instead it’s one expert trying to share his knowledge and expertise (in film, web design etc). It’s hard to compare these to normal classes.

See also two highly recommended books: I’m the Teacher and You are the Student by Patrick Ailitt and Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do.

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