It's no easy feat to be a professor, and even harder to be one that stands out in a sea of faculty employed by a top-tier research university.
Penn has had 1,730 professors (not including visiting professors or teaching assistants) instructing undergraduate courses since 2009. The average professor over that time received a rating of 2.84 out of 4.0 on "instructor quality" on semesterly Penn Course Review evaluations by students. To be at the very top of the list requires producing a very satisfied body of students.
I contacted Penn's top 30 professors (ranked by their instructor quality) and asked them to share how they approach their teaching and what it takes to be a successful teacher. Their Penn Course Review ratings range from a 4.0 to a 3.84. They teach history and English and language classes and more. Some are relatively new teachers, still beginning to understand their own approach to education. Others have a decades-long history in professorship and have nearly perfected their styles.
Here's what they want you to know.
"I love Penn and I love Penn students. When I was an undergrad here I was blessed to have a number of amazing professors who poured into me, challenged me and encouraged me in a wide array of classes. I simply try to do the same.
"In each class that I teach, I seek to create a democratic classroom that takes seriously the voices and experiences of each individual present. When the brilliance and life journeys of students are integrated into a course, a powerful dialogical space is created allowing for richer and more engaged learning."
"I teach a 15-person nonfiction workshop. My students are brilliant, intuitive, creative and compassionate, so my job as their teacher is to provide a framework to guide them as writers, readers and critics, and then to get out of the way so they can work, both independently and collaboratively. We spend at least half of our class time in conversation about the students' works in progress, which leads to improvement not just from receiving peer feedback, but each draft is a teaching tool in itself, demonstrating to the group what works and what needs work.
"I'm like a coach: I try to give a motivating, instructive halftime speech and I occasionally shout stuff from the sidelines, but ultimately, it's up to my students to execute. And they do."
"The heart of good teaching is to take one's students seriously as minds, to ask a lot of them (which leads them to ask a lot of each other), to prefer open, critical minds to disciples of any kind, and to bring students into an ongoing, collegial intellectual conversation about phenomena other than themselves. In my case, this has had and still has an inverse correlation to salary, but it is well worth that price."
"Penn students arrive in my classes equipped to find all the information they need in a matter of seconds. In a googlepedia world, good teaching to me means making time for patient, logical thinking. It means showing up with real research questions rather than mere data or inert tradition. And then it means getting as many students as possible involved in the real-time pursuit of truth, inviting them into a disciplined and collaborative examination of the evidence at hand, whether that's a novel, a poem or a whole history of consequential ideas. Since 2008, I find myself more and more asking students what they think a Penn education should be, and challenging the low-cost, high-speed model of knowledge delivery that is overtaking our universities. This effort also means thinking about the pros and cons of Penn Course Review itself as a consumer-driven metric. I'm happy to be recognized under that system, and eager to engage my students, but it's good to remember that great teaching happens across the whole PCR score spectrum."
"I started teaching Russian 30 years ago; first, in a tiny middle school in a remote town on the border of Russia and Kazakhstan, then, as a professor at a Russian pedagogical university, and finally, at one of the best American universities. I have changed schools and countries, but my teaching philosophy remains the same. Every class consists of individuals with their own characters, specific needs and abilities. I address them in a holistic manner, nurture the students' interest in all things Russian and provide them with the best teaching materials and tools I can find. Every time I enter a classroom, I think that I will have my best class ever. Every time I leave the classroom I think: 'Oh, I should have done better.' With eagerness, I look forward to the next class. And this is how it has worked for 30 years."
"At Penn, I learn at least as much from students as they ever do from me - that exchange of ideas and insights is the key. It's labor intensive, not machine made and precious beyond measure. Among the great rewards of working with talented students is that I can follow their careers and sometimes be of use to them (reference letters, talking through options, even several times a year vouchsafing to the FBI that a given former student deserves a high security clearance!). I hear from past and present students almost every day, and delight in being a part of their education at Penn and beyond. Often, they tell me about legal cases or events that are relevant to what we focused on in class, and I am constantly updating based on their reports. See what I mean about exchange?"
"Successful teachers use their own continuing excitement about their subjects to inspire equal excitement in their students. My teaching style flows from not only from my desire to know, but also from the kick I still get out of sharing what I know. Academic careers depend upon mastering specialized information and communicating with other specialists. But if scholars lose their enthusiasm for sharing knowledge with non-specialists (be they students in a lecture or seminar, or the broader reading/listening public), then no matter how much prestige we may gather in our narrow cloisters we will have betrayed a central principle of academic life. Knowledge is not a treasure to be hoarded for a select few. It can only grow and enrich society if it is shared, only if those who learn also love to teach."
"In my language classes I want students to see Russian as a living, dynamic system, used by real people to express real feelings and ideas, not a set of arbitrary rules to be memorized. Every class is a real-life conversation or exploration of the Russians' world, not a lecture on Russian grammar. I try not to be the teacher with all the questions and all the answers. I do not want to tell my students how Russian works, how Russians think or feel. Instead, I try to help students figure out everything Russian on their own, to learn to make connections with what they have seen before and to draw their own conclusions, based on what they know. I like to remind them that in language and culture answers are rarely simple, black and white, yes or no (even in verb conjugation!). I hope my students will become skilled learners who will continue successfully studying languages, not just Russian, and people who speak them after they leave our courses and Penn."
"As a language instructor, I base my classes on what language is primarily for: communication, understanding, self-expression and discussion. The classroom must be a friendly and collaborative environment that encourages students to give a personal contribution and to work with others towards making something new and original. The key to achieve this goal is to share with students a sense of curiosity, irony and play. Solid preparation and careful planning are essential, and yet this is only half of the teacher's job. The other half is being alert to what happens in the present moment in the classroom, being responsive to the signals coming from the students and being ready to incorporate them in the class. I think of my way of teaching as well-prepared impromptu and I always wonder at how many things, as a teacher, I end up learning from students."
"I have always approached teaching as a conversation. My practice is informed by my work in Makuu, my aspirations for community empowerment, my background as a youth educator through Ase Academy and my student support strategies in my book "Higher Learning: Maximizing Your College Experience" and as a pre-major advisor. In the classroom, I want to engage students around the topic and the readings, but also get a sense of how they see themselves in the world, what ideas or creations they intend to pursue, what drives them to want to learn and what particular areas they want to grow. I've been fortunate to connect with many brilliant students through the courses I teach here. Many of those classroom conversations have continued a decade later."
"I always tell incoming colleagues to the Portuguese Program that if they really enjoy teaching, Penn provides a rewarding and challenging environment. Our students typically have already studied two (some times three) other languages, which means that they are highly motivated multilingual language learners. In my eleven years at Penn, I have had the privilege of working with many excellent students, who have always been very eager to experience Portuguese language and/or Luso-Brazilian culture. As for my classes, students have mentioned "an open and encouraging atmosphere' that helps to keep them engaged and channel their motivation into their language and cultural experiences. I believe that being demanding and maintaining high expectations of my students have also been positive components of my teaching approach."
"The most rewarding part of my job is helping students challenge and redefine their beliefs regarding individuals who experience mental illness. During seminar discussions, I encourage students to recognize how their own experiences in life shape how they perceive the individuals they treat and work actively to be aware of how this can be both a strength and a barrier to providing person-centered care. Through a combination of role-playing, case presentations and supplemental didactic workshops, I'm able to watch students synthesize their knowledge with clinical and life experience and grow more confident in their ability to independently provide care. With the increased confidence, students are more effectively able to use their inherent strengths to develop empowering therapeutic relationships with the individuals they support. The learning process is reinforced through in-class discussions about how even the most simple interactions led to significant changes in the life of a patient."
"I try to respond to my students whenever they need me. I always tell them they can email me anytime. As a language teacher, I have the luxury of having small classes and the chance to know each and every one of my students quite well. I do my best to let them know that I'll be there for them either inside or outside of the classroom, either during the course or after. I believe that teachers are also mentors and eventually lifelong friends. It's important for teachers to be nonjudgmental, to respect each and every student as a unique individual and to support them however and whenever they need it. At a large university like Penn where everybody is highly achievement-driven, it's easy to feel self-conscious and lost. I do my best to encourage my students to chase their dreams and ambitions with integrity but also embrace their defeats gracefully. I hope my students are never afraid of coming to my office and always feel better about themselves when they leave."
"I always think teaching language is quite a different experience than teaching other academic courses. You have more freedom to create your own methods to teach your students. It is easier to make "the fun' the most important element when you are teaching language. It is like composing music or painting a picture or writing a poem… When you have Penn students as your instruments, opportunities are endless and fun is limitless, hence the result is more rewarding.
"I have been teaching Turkish for 10 years now at Penn and it has been a great experience. Teaching a less commonly taught language like Turkish has some difficulties but at the same time it is a very unique experience. Student numbers may not be high every semester and it usually fluctuates but the student profile is always excellent. They are motivated, enthusiastic and attentive. They have receptive and productive skills and they love brainstorming together and creating with the language. They are used to practicing, speaking through discussion and problem solving activities. I always remind them of the value of their courage to speak and take turns to express themselves without worrying about the perfectness of their work or ideas."