What it’s like to be a Professor 101

We all know the feeling of falling asleep at our desks, but what’s it like being the person in front of the chalkboard? How do professors feel about their students, how do they interact with their colleagues, what is their opinion on the efficiency of universities?

Thankfully I have an easy way of getting the hidden view of being a university professor-my dad, Keith Sharp, is a now-retired professor and was able to answer some of my questions during an interview.

Where did you teach?

“University of Waterloo and University of Toronto.”

How long were you a professor?

“20 years as a professor at Waterloo, 7 years as a part-time lecturer at Toronto.”

How can new students start a positive relationship with a teacher?

“For big classes especially, help the teacher remember you.  Maybe mention something a little unusual about yourself – you had a student job at the zoo, you lived in India for a while, whatever.  If the instructor is teaching more than one course, mention ‘I’m from your XYZ class’. Remember that he/she sees a lot of people and answers a lot of questions, and have a thought for using his/her time well.  In particular, most professors are happy to see you during office hours and perhaps much less happy outside office hours when they are working on other things. Best is to attend office hours a long time before the first exam or other crunch time, and ask explanations where you have already put some of your own time into it.”

How do students cause problems for their teachers?

“Whispering in class: Is a problem to the entire class if lots of people are whispering. SO a professor will aim to stop the whispering from starting.”

One of the memorable ways Keith shut down a noisy class was by throwing plastic toy octopuses at gibbering students. “Yep. I threw many octopi and am proud of it.”

What is the hardest part of being a professor? The best?

“Trying to make lectures stimulating, and thinking of original research ideas.  Hardest and, when successful, also the best!”

How long does it take to prepare for a class?

“First time that you give a lecture it might take three hours to prepare one hour of material. Next year you might polish it and review it and it takes 90 minutes per hour of material. After that, maybe one hour of prep per hour in class, having discovered that the lecture is much more lively if you review and refresh it.”

What about being a professor do you think students would find surprising?

“Academic employment systems (tenure etc) usually result in a professor staying at the same university for their whole career.  In the frantic whirlwind of job applications for your first faculty job, you might find that you’ve said ‘yes’ to a position in Upper Ballutaland without knowing quite where it is. Let’s hope that you like it there.  A friend at the University of California-Berkeley went for an interview at a British university, flight paid, only because it gave him a chance to see his favourite team play cricket. Despite deliberately messing up the interview he was offered the job and felt obliged to accept. The good part is that he has now watched every home game for 40 years.”

Any hilarious anecdotes from class?

For one of Keith’s colleagues, “At first lecture of Mathematics 123 starting by writing ‘Arts 119 – Da Vinci’s contribution to Renaissance (….confused voices from student audience…..) oops erase, write ‘Math 123 – Integration and summation are…”

“I used to hand out dollar store laser pointers, one for each student, sometimes 150 lasers, so that shy students could communicate with laser dots on the board. For example ‘please shine your laser at LECTURING TOO FAST or at LECTURING TOO SLOWLY’ or  ‘please shine your laser at SQUARED or at CUBED to check understanding.’ This would give maybe a 100 dot vs 50 dot vote on the formula. The one topic that would get a unanimous 150 dot vote would be if I lectured 60 seconds overtime: all lasers pointing at the clock.”

Do professors gossip about students/ have judgemental views on students?

“Not much negative talk about individual students usually.”

Do professors usually get on well with other professors in the same/different faculties?

“In a large university, you might only rarely meet people from other faculties, depending on your job and your activities away from work.  Usually, the instructors get on well together. A problem can be the long time frame over which you may be working with someone. A person’s happy humming might eventually drive you nuts.”

What is your biggest accomplishment during your career as a professor?

“One which I’m proud to talk about is some success in persuading universities to track the long-term careers of their graduates.  What proportion of graduates in intergalactic gardening eventually got decent relevant jobs? Students, including those still in high school, deserve to receive correct information to guide their choice of field.”

What do you think students should do/change to help improve their and the professors lives?

“Explore what it’s like in the real world, outside the ‘ivory tower’.  It’s excellent to get vacation jobs selling donuts on a beach or bolting flywheel covers to car engines.  I did both of those. And it’s even better to do work related to your field of study, preferably through an organized coop/internship programme – or organize your own!”

Do you know the website Rate My Professor-what is your opinion on it?

“Maybe once per year. Certainly plenty of the comments deserve thought about possible ways to improve. But one doesn’t take too seriously those that seem to come from discontent with low marks.”

One of the most hilarious feedback comments Keith has received was during a stint in the US. Certain sayings aren’t known, and during class when he was discussing the method of red herrings a confused student remarked on her feedback form “Why do you keep talking about fish?”.

A colleague of Keith once got a review stating- ‘bad things about instructor: falling off platform, good things about instructor: some days not falling off platform’

And there you have it. Professors can easily be as unorganized and scatterbrained as the rest of us, just for them they also have to deal with us students on top of it.

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