What Students Want
It comes down to passion, commitment and challenges
By Helen S. Schwartz
As a first-year student from a small high school, Kristin Alongi '08 felt overwhelmed by her introductory chemistry class. Fearing she would fail, she decided she had to withdraw. But her teacher and advisor, George Shields, the Winslow Professor of Chemistry, delayed signing the withdrawal form."I knew she was a good student, so I told her I wasn't going to sign the slip immediately," he says. He encouraged her to stick with it and assured her she could meet the challenge.
The next day, Alongi earned a 100 on her first quiz. "She never came back to get my signature," Shields says. Ultimately, Alongi got an A+ in the course. Today Shields tells the story to similarly anxious first-year students, and Alongi is a chemistry major and winner of a Goldwater Scholarship for excellence in the sciences.
One of Adam Polonski's teachers, Assistant Professor of English Katherine Terrell, contacted Polonski '08 after he had taken a course with her to encourage him to submit a paper for presentation at a student conference. Terrell worked with him to revise the paper. Then, after it was accepted, she drove him to the conference in Pennsylvania and was there to hear his panel. When professors reach out to you, Polonski says, they "help you become better at anything you do."
Such stories attest to Hamilton students' appreciation of the quality of teaching on the Hill today and illustrate the distinction between good professors and great ones. The capable professor comes to class prepared to teach; the superb one seduces you into loving the subject. The average professor answers difficult questions; the amazing professor demands them and poses them. The dutiful professor keeps office hours faithfully; the exceptional professor stops to talk while crossing campus or invites your class to dinner. The common denominator, Alongi says, is passion. A great professor is "not only passionate about the subject, but passionate about teaching and passionate about students."
The power of that passion can engage students and help them make connections across radically different disciplines. It's what made geology major Kim Roe '08 comfortable enough to risk Associate Professor Lydia Hamessley's world music course — and then to catch up with her more musically inclined classmates under Hamessley's patient guidance.
Roe was following a Hamilton adage that advises students to "take the professor, not the course." It's a tradition that reflects a core liberal arts value: At the undergraduate level, what matters most is a broad, balanced intellectual journey. As Kunter Kula '11 explains, "You choose to take a class not because you are interested in the subject, but because you are going to learn and understand a new perspective." Interest in the subject itself will follow, notes Mariam Ballout '10; great teachers "are so enthusiastic about their topic that it rubs off on students even if the students were not as enthusiastic going into the class." Eric Kuhn '09 adds,"If a subject is taught by a fantastic teacher,magically, like osmosis, we will also grow to love that topic."And for Brianna Felton '09, the passion of a great professor for the subject simply "makes it fun."
Felton warns, though, that fun doesn't equal ease. An exceptional professor, she says, sets high expectations—and then helps students rise to meet them. When she studied abroad as part of Hamilton's Associated Colleges in China program, she found her teachers "expected you to be on your game at all times. "Teachers demanded not only that students keep up with the syllabus, but that they even work ahead of assigned passages.The teachers, though, reviewed the material so thoroughly and showed such joy when students excelled that Felton felt compelled to meet the challenges.
And, students say, that intensive classroom exchange works both ways; an effective professor does not regard questions or comments as interruptions but "likes to be challenged," Kula says. A good course is, among other things, an ongoing conversation within an intellectual community, and part of the art of teaching is giving students the confidence to join that conversation. Roe calls it "the ability to be open to questions," to go beyond routine responses to students' inquiries and to welcome debate, even skepticism.
While course content is important, students say that the heart of most courses is developing the critical-thinking and research skills that define the discipline. History major Rachel McReynolds '09 looks for the professor who "teaches me…how to be a historian rather than just teaches me about history." She wants to learn how to write like a historian, "think like a historian, approach historical ideas and thought like a historian."
Once class is over, students enjoy bumping into their professors around campus and in town, and they regard invitations to dinner and other glimpses into teachers' personal lives as a part of the educational experience. As Ballout puts it,"If you run into [professors] outside the office, then you can have organic conversations with them that involve topics that might not be addressed in the classroom, and you find out more about them as human beings." Another of Polonski's professors, Margaret Thickstun, the Elizabeth J.McCormack Professor of English, has held some of her office hours at Café Opus. Polonski says her presence there, in the midst of the social life of the College, merges the personal and the instructional in a welcoming way.
Faculty members, in fact, touch students' lives in a variety of ways beyond the confines of the classroom and the laboratory.Mallory Reed '10, a news editor for The Spectator, likes it when a professor mentions having read one of her articles — even if the professor expresses disagreement with it.Michael Hayes '08 has been able to form close relationships with two professors on the golf course — Robert Simon, the Marjorie and Robert W. McEwen Professor of Philosophy, and Paul Hagstrom, associate professor of economics — while they coach him and the other members of the golf team. Roe recalls that Professor of Chemistry Karen Brewer spent time with her during both spring break and summer vacation in 2006 to complete a course so that Roe could join a spring research expedition to Antarctica led by Eugene Domack, the Joel W. Johnson Family Professor of Geosciences.
Such gestures, students say, not only demonstrate professors' commitment, but also represent a sense of engagement in campus life that transforms a college into a community. Says Tamim Akiki '08, "A great professor in class, no matter how successful, remains a memory of a great professor, but a mentoring and caring professor becomes a lifelong friend."