Instructor Challenge   3 comments

From Ann (and Meg):

List the three best teachers you’ve ever had and tell us why. They must be in respective order.

1. Michael Berg, Professor of Mathematics, Loyola Marymount University (Algebraic Structurs I & II)

Near the end of Algebraic Structures I, Dr. Berg addressed the class thusly: “I know most of you are not particularly interested in this area of theory, and therefore are unlikely to take Algebraic Structures II next semester. I am therefore considering teaching II as a graduate level seminar instead of an undergraduate course. Would any of you be interested?” Three of us raised our hands.

For that class, we had no book. We sat and scribbled notes furiously while Dr. Berg wrote theorems and proofs on the board and riddled us with questions that made our brains hurt. He pushed us so hard that on more than one occasion we found ourselves explaining a correct answer to a question where we knew what the answer was, and we knew it was right, but we actually didn’t know why we were right until we finished explaining our answer. Our midterm was a seven question take-home exam, we had a week to complete it, and he told us straight out that successfully completing two of the questions would net us an A. Our final exam was an oral exam and it was Berg vs. Pat, Jeff, and Albert.

I missed exactly two class sessions, both because I was sick as a dog (my undergraduate career was decorated with spotty attendance records, this is a major data point). In each case I actually acquired, copied, and digested the class notes, and showed up for office hours to grill Dr. B on a couple of fine points I had missed (this is even more telling than my attendance record).

Most importantly, he taught us the difference between a correct proof and an elegant proof, and made the three of us dissatisfied with producing only the first.

2. Barbara Rico, Professor of English, Loyola Marymount University (Honors English Seminar)

Dr. Rico taught an honors English seminar; I forget the exact title, but the class was focused on literature written by minorities in the US, such as Chicano literature, Japanese-American works from Manzanar, etc. The study of literature is just as hard as the study of engineering if you want to study it well (all jokes about English being an “easy” major thrown around Engineering schools to the contrary). Studying literature that is authored by people who are outside of your own social context is even more difficult, as the tacit background isn’t part of your own sociological makeup. Dr. Rico taught the class supremely well, and I credit her with teaching me a number of insights about cultural contexts that have made a decided impact on my practical ability to operate in the real world. “Never judge another man until you walk a mile in his moccasins” is a great phrase, but in a sense trivializes the difficulty of the problem; far too often “moccasins” don’t exist and “a mile” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

3. Fr. Ed McFadden, Bellarmine College Preparatory (Freshman English)

Fr. McFadden was the terrifying dictator of English that kept order in a classroom of 30 teenage boys with the application of a ruthless wit and a complete and utter lack of tolerance for tomfoolery. It didn’t matter if you were attracted to the subject matter or not, you learned because the consequences of failure were unpleasant. Students who were “class cutups” and distractions in some other classes were on their best behavior in Freshman English. To get respect in Fr. McFadden’s class, you had to know the material, but when you were right, you were rewarded.

One teacher made me want to learn because of the beauty of the material, one made me want to learn because of the value of the material, and one made me want to learn because by God, only those who knew their stuff got respect. Each was a perfect match to the class in question. QED.


Posted December 2, 2007 by padraic2112 in noise, social

3 responses to “Instructor Challenge

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  1. I knew Berg would get a mention.

  2. Two decades after sitting in Fr. McFadden’s freshman English class I am now a college professor. Looking at my teaching style, it’s about 100% the opposite of his. And yet, I too would list him as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Why? Because despite the wrath and the ridicule, you understood that he really gave a damn that you walked out of his classroom with a mastery of the material. His intent was far more important than his tools.

  3. It’s been two years since I made the above comment. I’d like to partially retract it. I’ve found that my first-year students generally fear me, and they should, if they don’t have their acts together they get their heads handed to them. On the other hand, the students who are just about to graduate really appreciate what I’ve done for them as students.

    No, I don’t call them buffoons. Nor is public humiliation one of my weapons. But I now recognize I’m much more like him than I thought I was.

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