Since starting my master’s program, I’ve found that there are two kinds of college educators: people who teach because it’s part of their job description, and people who teach because they love it. As an undergrad, I was vaguely aware of the dichotomy, often because there were classes that I really loved, and some that I had to suffer through because nobody in the room gave a damn about learning. In Grad school, though, the difference is much more pronounced. Let me break down what the difference looks like from a classroom perspective:
People who teach because it’s in their job description are massively intelligent. They work in academia because they couldn’t survive very well anywhere else, since they’ve lost the ability to communicate with normal people. These are usually people who have doctorates and tenure, and they spend criminal amounts of time researching whatever may catch their interest. They’re masters of whatever field it is that they work in, and they don’t seem to connect very well to anything outside of that field. In class, they know the answer to pretty much everything, and they have very well-rehearsed lessons that seem to always stay on-track. They can respond to questions comfortably, but in retrospect the answers might not actually answer what the asker wanted to know. They write grants that can bring assloads of money into the school, and they’re usually teaching higher-level courses on bizarrely specific subjects. If you talk to them after class or during office hours, they’re usually the ones who can say “have you ever looked into article X?” They can do that because they’re prolific reviewers for whatever journal it came from.
People who love to teach are also usually pretty dang bright. Not always Rainman intelligent, but they still know what they’re talking about. Some of them have doctorates, some only have masters degrees, and there are a few at most schools that only have a bachelors. They spend a lot of class time holding discussions, and lessons get off track pretty much all the time. They’re not usually as quick with a scholarly answer to in-class questions, but you can expect an email from them later when they’ve had a few minutes to look into things. If you’ve had a professor that was comfortable saying “I don’t know” in class, they were probably one of this sort. They know a hell of a lot about a concerning number of subjects, but they don’t come across as infallible gods of the Academy. They work with journals in the discipline, and keep up on the current scholarship, but they’re not really driven by the minutia of every single theory that’s come out.
I’m discussing the difference between the two because it makes a difference when you get to Grad School. In high school, I took Biology I from Gene Kinslow. He loved to teach. We had a game of jeopardy pretty much every class, and he encouraged us to ask questions about anything even vaguely related to the subject. Ron Enos, Susan Morton, Pat Murphy, and Nancy Derryberry were cut from the same cloth, and even though I hated having to take half of their classes, I loved the classes anyway. In college, I took lit classes from Claire Peckosh. She taught us how to read with a child’s eyes again in her children and young adult lit classes. She was scattered, and the semester syllabus changed every week, but I learned more from her classes than any of the other dozen or so lit courses I took. The same went for Mark “H-Bomb” Hatala and Adam Davis. They both could have been in the “job description” group, but they weren’t. They made damn sure we learned as much about the world as we did about their subject.
Then I got to grad school. The classes were harder, and required a special kind of teacher, but I still ended up with people who cared more about teaching than learning theories. Mostly. But that mostly is for a different post. My coworkers, the English 1010 and 2010 teachers, are a mixed bag. Some of them are teaching to subsidize their research habits. I would even say that a lot of them are that way. But there are a few of us who stay sane BECAUSE we’re teaching those required classes that very few students are actually interested in taking. Learn to tell the difference; you can usually spot it in the first week of class. If you’ve got a “job description” professor, drop the class and try to change your schedule if you can. Take classes with the professors who are there because they like being there. It makes all the difference. And don’t be a bastard.