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Professors Are Better Than That!

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President Obama's rhetorical performance in the first presidential debate came across as rambling, with a halting style punctuated by verbal tics -- "um," "y'know" and "uh" -- and discursive sidebar thoughts that did not illuminate any key facts. "Just like a professor," was the explanation offered by various pundits.

Wow. No wonder higher education is in trouble! Do people really think that the president's lame rhetorical performance is emblematic of the teaching style of our nation's higher ed faculty?

This is not a political statement. I am not commenting on which candidate should win the election. My observations are purely in defense of the professoriate!

I know faculty. I hire and evaluate faculty. A few faculty are even friends of mine. President Obama would not last long on my faculty with a performance like that. College professors are better than that! Better by light years.

Sure, someone will immediately recall the horror of daft old Professor Chips with his yellowing notes and droning lectures. I have news for you: Mr. Chips is dead. He keeled over when he walked into his classroom several Septembers ago and discovered the chalkboards were all gone, replaced with smartboards. His beloved wooden lectern had become an intergalactic cockpit stocked with computers and clickers and laser pointers the better to direct the multimedia pedagogical tools blasting from projectors around the room. Rumor has it that his emailbox was full of unopened messages from an assistant dean with increasingly urgent headlines demanding, "Upload Your Syllabi to Moodle -- Now!"

His students, busy with their iThings, interrupted updating their Facebook status to record videos of the moment while tweeting his passing: Gdby #PrfChps 2bad u r legend @oldstateu will someone take down your page on @ratemyprofessor "hot" not funny now BTW will this be on xam?

Professors in 2012 must be masters of a dazzling array of teaching tools designed to communicate effectively with small and large classes alike across a broad range of multivariate learning styles, reaching every student equally well with immensely engaging pedagogical innovations. Rambling lectures studded with discursive war stories simply don't make the grade. A prospective faculty member who exhibits such tendencies in the sample teaching presentation that is part of every hiring process would never get past the first round of interviews. Even a tenured faculty member who shuns technology or discussion formats in favor of good old-fashioned lectures had better keep her rhetorical style in top shape or students simply will tune out if they sign up for the class at all. Student consumers vote at every course registration cycle; chronic low enrollments are the death knell of teaching careers.

Most new faculty come to the profession of "professing" already equipped with the facile technological skills that today's students expect. Many universities like Trinity now require faculty members to use a course management system to post course syllabi and related materials online (we use Moodle). A faculty member who incorporates visual tools -- a basic Powerpoint outline, a few links to online resources, perhaps some illustrations and displays to supplement the day's lessons -- will get passing marks. But a truly great class might use video clips, animation and simulation, clicker technology and student presentations using their own technologies to make the learning process as engaging as possible.

Beyond using engaging, effective pedagogy, professors with staying power must also demonstrate consistently strong rhetorical skills, staying on point, knowing the facts, articulating the latest research succinctly and in plain english, responding directly to erroneous student answers without being patronizing -- all important skills for debates as well. A faculty member who lets a student repeatedly make false statements without clear rebuttal soon becomes the butt of student jokes, bad course evaluations, and intense chats with the dean.

Preparation is key to being a great professor. Our faculty at Trinity, and throughout higher education, work hard to keep up with the latest innovations in instructional technology and new theories of pedagogy even as they engage in continuous study and research of their own to stay on top of the latest innovations in knowledge and theories. With so many new ways to communicate with students -- and with the increased diversity of student populations that makes understanding different learning styles even more important -- the job of the college professor has never required more preparation to master new methods, new expectations for teaching a broader range of students, and new content that often defies old ideas.

Professor Obama? Don't insult the professors. He would do well to study some really great teachers whose lessons in audience awareness, effective communication and ready repartee would also make him a far more effective debater.

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