Last Thursday, recipients of the 2016-17 University of Cincinnati-Clermont College Excellence in Teaching Award hosted an event titled “What it Takes to be an Excellent Professor.” Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Mathis and Associate Professor of Paralegal Studies Bruce Davis both had the honor of receiving this award. At the event, located in Snyder 142, the two professors shared what they believe makes a professor great before opening the session to questions and conversation.
One of the most important components of being a remarkable professor, according to Dr. Bruce Davis, is taking the time to get to know one’s students. He emphasized how important this is throughout his talk, and gave examples of experiences he’s had where it has really made a difference. English Professor Gregory Sojka often says that “[students] don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” and this is something that Dr. Davis has taken to heart throughout his years of teaching.
Other key aspects of effective teaching that Dr. Davis mentioned include being available and accessible to students, having a sense of mutual respect with your students, making it clear what is expected of students and what students can expect from him (something Dr. Davis has outlined in a syllabus manifesto), and simply being inspiring and thoughtful of your students’ situations. He also listed several adjectives that describe the attributes great professors portray, such as honesty, authenticity, passion, enthusiasm, responsibility, creativity, and being knowledgeable among others.
Dr. Mathis then discussed what makes a professor great in her experience as well, and one of the primary aspects she focused on was the importance of getting to know students’ names. She said that although remembering names is something she struggles with, it’s important to her because she’s witnessed the difference it can make in a classroom. To help her match student faces with names, Dr. Mathis has them email her a photo, along with some brief information about their goals and interests, and she does this about a week before classes begin each semester. This helps her get to know her students on a more personal level, and she believes it can positively influence the dynamic of an entire class. Dr. Mathis even gives students her cell phone number—with stipulations about when she will be available to respond to texts and calls—so they can get in touch with her if necessary.
Dr. Davis pointed out that there are other options available for professors who aren’t comfortable giving students their cell phone number. One such option is Google Voice, which Dr. Davis uses himself. He said that one feature he likes about Google Voice is that it can send voicemails directly to your email inbox, which he has found immensely convenient. Other professors shared how they tackle this issue as well. For example, Associate Professor of Physics Dr. Nick Abel explained that his policy is that students can contact him between 6 am and 10:00 pm.
Another thing Dr. Mathis recommends to show students you care is to get tests, quizzes, and homework back to them as quickly as possible. Her teaching philosophy is that if effort is shown on the part of the professor, it will be reciprocated by the students. Dr. Mathis has found this to be true in her many years of teaching. Like Dr. Davis, she believes it’s essential to be available in case students have questions. Dr. Mathis has always made sure to be around even outside of her office hours, and says that students really notice this dedication.
Dr. Mathis also emphasized the importance of collaboration with colleagues. She acknowledged that she’s learned so much of what she knows about teaching by simply having discussions with other professors, many of whom were from different disciplines.
Dr. Davis and Dr. Mathis ended the more formal part of the talk by asking the professors in the audience about their tried and true techniques for effective teaching. Several chimed in to share methods that have worked for them in the classroom, and others sought advice for dealing with some of the struggles professors encounter. One question that arose was about balancing the strenuous workload that often accompanies professorship, and Dr. Mathis said that she deals with this pressure by having an activity that “keeps her sane.” For Dr. Mathis, this is the companionship and enjoyment of riding her horse whenever she has time; Dr. Davis shared that playing jazz piano is what helps him to relax.
The Teaching Excellence seminar was a huge success with a great attendance turnout, and several professors raved about how much they enjoyed it. It had been some time since a teaching workshop like this has taken place at UC Clermont, and professors at the event were vocal about how much they appreciated Dr. Mathis and Dr. Davis taking the time to speak with them. In general, this event illustrated how essential camaraderie, communication, and group discussion among professors truly is.