Ken Bain, Center for Teaching Excellence of the New York University: “What the best University Professors do”

I read some time ago in the news about what an expert called Ken Bain recommends in his book for University professors to be “the best” they can. Actually, I didn’t read more than some of those self-satisfied sentences that can be interpreted the way one wants to interpret them.

I know that in the US most University professors are probably very interested in excellence in education, always looking for the best way to teach and make their students know more, and be happy with how they learned it. In European countries, however, most Higher Education centres are public, and professors aren’t responsible for their acts before their students or their parents, or even the Dean or Director – they are responsible only before themselves, as they ‘own’ a public office and cannot be fired if they behave arbitrarily, if they are despotic ignorants, or even if they don’t remember (or want) to go to their lessons…

There is no accountability whatsoever in such public systems, and in that case, I think even the author of that great book about being “the best professor”, Mr. Bain, would agree with most of us students, in that European professors (still) don’t need a ‘guide of maximal efficiency and efectiveness’, but a ‘guide of minimal rules’; and that such rules shouldn’t be contained just in a book of informal/officious guides or recommendations, but should instead be declared officialy by the competent authorities and should be legally enforceable.

I am not considered an ‘expert’ in how a professor should be or teach or behave, as I’ve only been a University student for 8 years, 5 years in the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, one year in the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, a summer in the Middlebury College, and 2 years in the Universidad de Extremadura. But these are the basic rules that, in my non-expert opinion, a professor (however ‘good’ or ‘bad’ other professors might think he or she is or should be) should follow, in this order, always and without exception:

  1. Adjust the content of their subject to the study plan.
  2. Give the content of the subject (in notes, books, whole bibliography, etc.), complete and available for all at the beginning of the course/semester.
  3. Adjust the content of the final exam to the material given according to point 2.
  4. Never try to force people to go to your class: if your class is worth it, people will go. [only some practices in some core subjects in some scientific careers could be off this point, if legally established]
  5. Give as official mark the final exam mark. Give – only if the professor deems it right – other increase criteria – only increase, and with a fixed maximum, like 1-2 points over 10 – for those who want to make extra work.

What the majority of University professors in western European public education systems do, if they are allowed to:

  1. Adjust the content of the subject to what they consider they have to teach – ie. what they want – seeking protection when confronted in a seemingly absolute “academic freedom” or “freedom to teach”, which they impose over any other consideration.
  2. Not tell clearly what enters in the final exam until the last days, what forces everyone to be informed permanently of what he teaches or not in class everyday, to know what ‘goes’ or ‘doesn’t go’ in the exam, as if we were in the school. Dictate notes, force students to go to their offices and make ‘personal tutorials’, ‘tutory homeworks’, public presentations, etc. which don’t have a fixed value, that can range from absolutly nothing to more than 50% of the final mark.
  3. Put in the final exam something that he or she has explained in class, however stupid and irrelevant it actually is, instead of questions referring to what is important in the subject and appears in the official study plan.
  4. Force students to go to their lessons, the more the worse the subject and the professor are, threatening with sentences like “those who don’t go to practices cannot pass the subject”, or “I have the responsibility to be sure that you learn”, or “for my experience I am quite sure that those who don’t come to my classes know less and don’t usually pass my exam”, etc.
  5. Give “Honours” and “Excellents” to those who go to their classes, make ‘tutorial homeworks’ and practices, etc. instead of those who obtain the best marks in the final exam – and thus know objectively more of the official study plan’s content -, after applying supposed “percentages” of “personal work”, measured how each professor deem appropriate. Let ignorant people (who haven’t passed the minimum required in the final exam) pass because ‘they have worked the subject’ after their criteria, and don’t let people who have passed the exam pass the subject, because “they haven’t passed the work plan, however good their marks in a written exam might be”.

To sum up: all those new super-dooper methods like the one linked above are great, but for a private Education system or for a public one with adult and responsible professors subjected to Law. While our professors think they are owners and lords of their classrooms, that they are some kind of judges of who-cares-what responsibility at the head of the society, that they are there to classify people into “good” or “bad” ‘homeworkers’, in hard-working or lazy according to their personal opinion, etc., instead of accepting what they really are, mere providers of knowledge, paid by us students to give us their knowledge and to evaluate us objectively, all that is done and improved in the teaching aspect doesn’t have any value at all.

Or even worse: those methods might serve for our public professors to believe they are doing it right, or even better than right, as their attention will be on achieving some of those ‘maxima’, instead of passing everyday the necessary ‘minima’.