THE BLOG
02/05/2013 06:07 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Extraordinary Professors: The Virtuosos and the Conductors

"You dropped 150 grand on an education that you could have gotten with $1.50 worth of late charges at the public library." -- Good Will Hunting


If Will were speaking today, he'd be even tougher on the helpless kid because good colleges now cost you a quarter million dollars whereas you can watch thousands of lectures for free on Coursera and its kin. Is the classroom experience still worth it at this Ferrari buy in? I say yes.

Many of my professors have just been good. Explained things well but I wasn't moved or transported or enlightened. I was just like: "yup, makes sense, and this is definitely a smart dude/lady." That's all. Then again maybe it's self-entitled or foolish to expect more.

But it can't be -- because sometimes more happens. At the beginning of some semesters, I take my seat for the first class and the professor comes in, and starts speaking. And suddenly I know that it's become an honor to have a seat in this room.

I'd like to share two different experiences with instructors of that other realm.

Awe and the virtuoso

A gentleman steps into a classroom large as a concert hall. He's in his mid-twenties -- actually not a professor yet but a Ph.D student who has a 3.96/4.00 rating on the Penn Course Review website. Like others, I took this class for the teacher more than for what was being taught.

He's Gatsby-handsome and Harvard-dressed and walks to the lectern with steps that are both vigorous and composed. He stands straight and strong but it looks very natural. He's got a slight smile on, the one that's both smart and amused.

When the lecture begins you look around and notice the students are befuddled because our gentlemen speaks like Churchill with the throughput of Eminem: many words per second, all good ones too. He teaches statistics and doesn't write but carves on the mega blackboard with diabolical energy. When the metal frame between two boards gets in the way of the moving finger he strikes right over it with the chalk. Screw barriers.

He expects so much of you. Some chill professors allow you to use computers in class; some stiffs ban them in their Constitution of Rules. With him, there are no rules. Only etiquette.

You just can't be distracted because he expects constant contributions and will call on you and if you've wandered you're not punished, worse! You feel you've let everyone down in what looks like a rigorously rehearsed ballet performance even though, in reality, this was the first take.

When he's not teaching statistics, he's preaching and playing Chopin in "bonus" seminars that are overcrowded not with former and current students, but with outright fans. He is known and commemorated as an intellectual Lang Lang around campus. No arrogance though -- students just remember that he made them aspire to be the best version of themselves because that's what he is.

Collective epiphanies and the conductor

We move to a more intimate setting. It's a class of ten, a seminar. That by itself always feels like a privilege because one again, you're a major actor. The semester is going to be one long discussion.

We're dealing with a different type of instructor. He's less of a performer and more of a "group therapist." He has a remarkable sensibility to the "feel" of the room at any moment and, when it appears, he knows how to preserve the very fleeting thrill of positive momentum.

He's the master of timing and coordination. Since his class is mostly built on student interventions, it matters so much what question he asks and at what point, whom he picks to speak and when. He's an orchestra conductor who decides when to hush the winds and when to bring out the cellos just a little more.

He knows what revelations he wants to share, but he also knows that we can't live the experience of the insight without going down the path to that insight ourselves. We have to start confused and he sheds light little by little. Only this way can our understanding hatch, and he's like a detective reverse engineering a crime -- which is appropriate since the class is about South American detective stories.

You can sense him get excited and ask questions louder and louder, eager to move on when someone is speaking and not quite making the point the perfect orchestration requires. It's like he's dying to speak and throw the truth in front of us because he's so passionate about the damn subject but he wants U.S. to say it -- even better he wants us to say things HE hadn't thought of.

When you say something smart, he pushes you further, all the while tossing the chalk up into the air, but not too high. He contains his excitement and keeps laying down the clues.

And when you finally make the killer point, and we've uncoiled the tight tight and dense little mystery, he can no longer contain himself: his plump lips quiver and he drops the chalk. It cracks open just like the story and he laughs and the whole class laughs. We're so happy -- and exhausted.

More

These impressions are very anecdotal arguments in favor of the college classroom experience. I think that's fine because anecdotes are things that happen to you here. And they change you. I don't recognize myself from a year back because I've been smashed to pieces and rebuilt over and over, every time I've had those exceptional experiences. That's what happens when you're put in a physical college classroom, able to interact with a bunch of other hungry students under the guidance of great teachers and role models. I don't think that's something you can get with late charges at the local public library.

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