As students and faculty alike are aware, professors undergo a tremendous amount of scrutiny. Virtually every student on campus has something to say about each of their professors, and typically negative opinions get the most air time. 

We busy ourselves with these conversations, but how often do we ask ourselves, what exactly makes a “good” professor?

In my experience, there is no such thing as a universally “good” or “bad” professor. Often students’ opinion of each professor has everything to do with teaching styles, learning styles, study habits, grading preferences, types of assignments, interest in the content, etc. Your view of a particular professor is essentially a personal algorithm dependent on the above variables, among others.

But I would also argue that there are some universally cherished traits among our educators. I think that the best professors are distinguished not by the difficulty of their assignments, nor the nature of their teaching, per se, but rather by their genuine care for each student. 

My favorite professors at Fairfield have not been those who have handed out good grades, though that has been appreciated. More than that, they have been those who have both acknowledged and challenged me as an individual. My favorite professors have gotten to know me, and beyond that, they have held me accountable.

My decision to come to Fairfield was inspired, in part, by a conversation with Fr. Tom Reagan S.J., a former professor at Fairfield. “Professors at Fairfield, or really any Jesuit school, care about you,” he said. 

From what I have experienced thus far on campus, that statement could not be more true. Fairfield is not the type of school where you can skip class and go unnoticed. And in my opinion, the best faculty members are those who make you feel noticed, sometimes even more than you’d like to be.

See, my favorite professors cold call me. They check in to make sure I am paying attention in class. 

My favorite professors will read and re-read my assignments before they accept them, providing feedback until I am on the brink of exhaustion, because they have high expectations of me.

My favorite professors let me sit in their offices, as they kindly go over content again and again, and then maybe another time. 

My favorite professors offer me their phone numbers and have me call them in the airport to go over a paper. 

My favorite professors reach out to ask me how I am doing, and genuinely want to know the answer.

My favorite professors talk to me about my strengths and weaknesses. They know me personally. They inspire me to do great things.

My favorite professors pray for me.

My favorite professors offer me feedback, even when I don’t want it.

My favorite professors hold me accountable, even when it hurts.

But more than anything, my favorite professors let me bare my own fruit. After they’ve done their pruning, my favorite professors sit back and let me take the reins.

And my favorite professors are the best cheerleaders.

A lot of the time, you’ll hear students assess faculty based on the grades they’ve received. And while I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about the letter grade I get on paper, I’ve come to learn that our tangible grades are just a fraction of what we really earn in each of our courses, because the best professors do more than coach their classes to A’s on a transcript. 

They facilitate real problem solving. They inspire critical thinking. They challenge students form well-developed arguments, and to effectively articulate them. They expose students to new concepts, and frame them in a creative way. And in the best way possible, they sometimes kick our butts. 

In any or all of these things, a “good” professor shapes us into the people we are becoming. But the best professors give us the tools we need to “go forth and set the world on fire.”

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