Old Professor Awards

04/16/2015 21:34

Awesome Educators of Yore

This week, Kate McCarthy asked: Moving away from a focus on high SET scores or Rate my Professors ranking, what can we do to challenge our students meaningfully and rigorously, without turning them off the process of learning, and us?

How do you do it?

Kate offered the example of her son’s high school teacher as demonstrably capable in the area of student engagement. I’d like to offer an example of one such professor in my life. I don't know that we can extract and embody such gifts as his, but surely taking respectful stock of role models helps when we recall who influenced us. 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I registered for a course Professor Rocky shared with another great professor, Michael Turner. I really didn’t want to be there, but it seemed the less painful of the required courses in my global sphere of study. I figured, why stop at global? Why not venture into the expanding universe itself?  

I went into the first class slightly terrified, in large part due to the math involved. Through the months ahead, Rocky took us up and down comet trails and into black holes, guiding us along a cosmic journey for which I at first had judged myself to be spectacularly unsuited. But soon enough, I was freely making personal associations between the sacred and the mundane of life as I understood it:  Wow, astrophysics is partly about dealing with big numbers and asking how big? Business is about dealing with big numbers and asking how big?

Organization out of chaos, boundless everything, particles arranging and rearranging themselves like pieces of a magic puzzle. With student-colleagues at the school of business, I shared knowledge of projects with definite beginnings and definite ends. In this class, I faced projects that would likely not end in our lifetimes, destined as they were to transform into endless iterations of themselves.  And then there was the stuff I still reflect upon today.

Only on the surface was I the slowest, most distracted student in his class, for I too had eagerly taken the field trip downward into the deep pit of the particular acceleration tunnel under Fermi Lab. I came out like everyone else did, awe-struck and reflective, though likely the only one relating the travel of neutrinos shooting underground toward Minnesota to the lines of a Marge Piercy poem: Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground / You cannot always tell by looking what is happening. Only in this case, neutrinos traveled at mind-boggling speed, and it was my ability to make a few intelligent calculations that was just kicking into gear. Still, I'd learned to face the ineffable while still in human form.

What tribute might you offer a professor who opens his first class with a (big) bang: Ninety five percent of the universe is missing!, and follows with a firm commitment to help students answer “the truly fundamental questions,” which he defines as:

  • What came before the big bang? 
  • What is outside the Universe? 
  • Where is the center of the Universe? 
  • Is there intelligent life elsewhere? 
  • Is there intelligent life here? 
  • Is there a parallel Universe? 
  • Is there a perpendicular Universe? 
  • Can you parallel park in a perpendicular Universe? 
  • Will the Cubs win the series before the end of time? 
  • Are we responsible for this on the final exam?
Edward “Rocky” Kolb, PhD, Has Also Been Known as “Mr. December.”

In the mid-‘90’s, thinking it was a joke, he ended up in a Studmuffins of Science calendar. It’s said that the University of Chicago is the school of “full frontal nerdity” and by golly, he proved it. Contrary to its reputation, though, fun does not go there to die—fun thrives in terrestrial, subterrestrial, and extraterrestrial gardens of secret intellectual delights. Here, though, is

A Proper Introduction to an Unforgettable Professor

Referring back to Rate My Professors, a former student, unable to forget him, wrote: (Rocky Kolb), as someone once told me, speaks a language only a few do in this world; in other words, he speaks the mathematical language of space. And he manages to translate it for those (like me) who cannot begin to comprehend these calculations. I am honored to have been in his class. Thank you, Rocky. 

I don't know that we can be better educators imitating anyone, but we can look to great professors we've known to hone our own skills through time. It's good to have tools and techniques available; in fact, it's essential. But educating is more than that.  I am convinced a technique both Rocky and Michael Turner used was their own relationship as innovators, "rivals" and friends to inspire in-class discussions that could sometimes become passionate as we chose whose camp we were in when discussing a highly charged (pun intended) controversy in science that the two could not agree on.

 Rocky helps me see that knowing, and clearly loving, your subject is a powerful additive to our particular mix of hard-earned skills and knowledge. Sometimes engaging the disengaged or intimidated student can be as simple as relaxing and being yourself. Rigor is still possible in that setting.


Who was your most unforgettable Professor? What were you emboldened to live, speak, and/or translate, thanks to the influence of that person?


Michael Turner, PhD, and Rocky, perennial "rivals" and friends. I got a B+. I thought I deserved an A. 

Or maybe not.