An otherwise quiet university student arrived at church services beaming with excitement. "I found a conservative professor!" he exclaimed. "I didn't know my university had any."
His surprise was justified. That university had been on the cutting edge of the sexual and drug revolutions of the 1960s, and for decades now had been known as a liberal think tank. Yet right there in the humanities section was a commonsensical English professor.
So, how do you find professors who are worth their salt—instructors who will help you to build your knowledge base without eroding your faith? Be advised: Not all professors want you to think critically about what they try to teach you.
Prospecting for professors
Sometimes you don't have a choice of instructors on a particular subject, but when you do, how do you evaluate or rate a prospective professor?
I asked that question of a small focus group of young adult vertical thinkers. They're all college students or graduates, including several with master's degrees, one Ph.D. candidate and another with a Ph.D. who works as a professor of American history.
Here's a compilation of their applied insight about seeking Mr. or Ms. Good Professor, with a few direct quotes thrown in:
Analyze the professor's personal bias
Check for compatible values. Do you and the instructor think similarly? If not, you will have to keep your moral deflector shields up at all times.
Watch for lifestyle too. Does the professor act respectably, both in the classroom and out?
Does he or she have a decent sense of humor? Tuition money need not be wasted on the foul-mouthed or obscene.
What is his or her religious and political perspective? Will the class be a soapbox for political action rather than a focused study of the subject matter?
Analyze professional bias and qualifications
What are the professor's education credentials? What school did he or she graduate from? What is its reputation or standing as an institution?
Does the instructor have any real-world work experience in the subject matter of the class being taught? "Outside experience generally means they have a more balanced or realistic view of their subject than the purely academic mind-set."
Be sure to skim or read articles or books the professor has published in order to discern his or her educational bias.
Does the professor teach the class or routinely assign an assistant to do so? Does he or she punctually correspond when you e-mail a question?
Preview the required textbooks for the class. "I remember my biology professor pushed all sorts of evolutionary books on us like The Beak of the Finch and Why Geese Don't Get Obese. It definitely gave me a clear idea where he was coming from."
Analyze the teaching style
Is the prospective professor "encouraging and empowering, yet challenging"? Does he or she have a reputation for inspiring the students to learn?
Can the teacher teach? Is he or she a good communicator? Is the instructor decisive in teaching, or does he hem and haw around the topic? Is she organized? Does he logically organize the subject matter?
How about academic humility? It's not easy to listen to arrogant pontificating for hours on end. A key indicator is whether the professor can "admit mistakes without anger."
"Try to avoid the rabid professors who want to mold you into images of themselves and don't have respect for differences of opinion. Demigods are hard to deal with."
Is he or she respectful toward all students yet capable of being disciplinary in class if the situation warrants? Productive learning stops when boorish, foolish "students" can disrupt the class.
How available is the professor to students after class or for consultation during office hours? Availability tends to indicate a love of teaching.
Where and how to get these answers
Check the university Web site and search Google about a prospective professor to learn his or her educational credentials, reputation and a list of what he or she has written on the course subject. Also, read the syllabus to see the assigned reading.
Check Web sites where students rate their professors, but use that only as possible supporting evidence for your decision. It's too easy to trash or overpraise through the relative anonymity of the Internet.
Talk to students who have taken classes with a particular professor. But first discern the perspective of the student you talk to. Garner the input of some who think like you and some who don't; then compare. Ask to sit in on a class or two so you can watch the professor in action.
"Meet with prospective professors or current ones and learn more about them by talking with them. People like to talk about themselves, and you can learn a lot about them when you get them going!"
Talk to guidance counselors or student advisers about the reputations of various professors. Try to discern whether they're giving you the straight scoop or just the bland party line. Getting to know a savvy adviser tends to open up his or her confidence to better help you chart your professor course.
You can find good professors
Sometimes we don't have much choice, and generally we just have to try to pick the best available option based on the time we have in which to do the research. We can still learn even if the situation is less than ideal.
But please don't be daunted in your pursuit of excellence in education. As one member of our focus group put it: "Believe it or not, in academia today there are still a few professors out there that can fit most of that bill, though they are difficult to find. And when I do find them, I tend to latch on and take a lot of their courses."
To bolster your search, consider this divine proverb: "He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed" (Proverbs 13:20). Choose wisely who you walk with educationally.
The ultimate Professor
Who would be the absolute best professor or teacher you could find for your higher education years?
Jesus Christ said, "You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am" (John 13:13).
Any class or lesson that Professor Jesus Christ teaches, you should take. In fact, He's happy to advise you along the way in any course of study—and He'll help you pass your tests! Study His textbook, base your life on it, and you will graduate to an infinitely higher form of life and occupation! VT