Dunbar: Professors should better acknowledge their role as teachers


Blair Dunbar, Columnist

I was sitting outside of a mechanical engineering room in Technological Institute, when a girl, clearly frustrated, walked into the hallway, talking to someone on the phone. “He told me he doesn’t answer questions. I had my quiz, and I walked up to him, ready to ask him a question, and he said he doesn’t do questions.”

Huh. A professor who doesn’t “do” questions. I wish I could say this was a strange occurrence for the faculty of Northwestern, but unfortunately it’s not. Particularly for students of the engineering or science departments, when classes are stacked with hundreds of students, and teacher’s assistants are meant to do the professor’s bidding, getting in touch with a professor can be about as difficult as meeting the main attraction after a concert ends.

I love my Weinberg academic adviser. She is always sending friendly email reminders about upcoming deadlines. When I was contemplating protesting a grade, she came with me to meet with the undergraduate studies director of the department because she knew how nervous I was. I told this story to my friend, a senior engineer, who was shocked. He said his adviser was just there to sign any necessary paperwork.

It’s not only the engineering and science departments at NU who don’t always engage with their students. One of the few guidelines for professors at NU is to hold office hours on a weekly basis. Students don’t need to make an appointment; they can just stop by if they have time. However, I have met professors in very small departments who regularly don’t attend their office hours if no students have made an appointment.

NU brags on college tours that even though this is a large research university, every professor — no matter how important his or her research is — is required to teach classes. What the tour guides don’t tell you is that if the class has more than 40 students, the professor has a teaching assistant and most of the grading and question-asking falls to the TA. And if the classroom has multiple TAs? Well, then let’s just hope you picked the good one. The research at NU is incredible, but sometimes I think professors forget about the other part of their job: teaching.

In 2012, Campus Technology recognized Purdue University for its invention Hotseat. Hotseat is an application available for SMS texting, iOS and Android phones that allows students to ask questions while in class. Professors see the questions as they’re texted. This also allows professors to conduct in-classroom polls and quizzes. The idea behind the application is to create lively in-classroom discussion. My opinion? It’s a great opportunity for students in large lecture classrooms to speak up and ask for clarification without having to wait 20 minutes in a line after class or be redirected to a TA.

Professors are not just researchers; they are teachers. And learning fascinates a lot of us NU students, but at the same time we inevitably struggle. Rather than creating a “no question” policy, I think professors should encourage them. After all, if you are going to be forced to spend several hours of your day teaching a roomful of students, wouldn’t you rather know that someone is not only listening, but actually cares?

Blair Dunbar is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].