Shopping period is upon us. Some of you might have started avidly adding classes to your schedule the moment that Yale Bluebook finally went online (July 28th? Is that a joke? Moving on …), and some of you might have only begun when you got to campus, trying to delay the frenetic process as long as possible. Well, freshmen (or shoppers of any age), I’m here as your resident crusty old senior to weigh in with some unsolicited advice: reject the ‘great man’ theory of professorships.
Allow me to back up briefly: Everyone has a different theory on how best to shop and how to decide what classes to take. But one of the most often-heard pieces of advice is to pick the classes with the best professors. That is undoubtedly true — great course material in the hands of an inept lecturer will do you no good academically (though it may improve your productivity in catching up on your email correspondences). Conversely, concepts that might never have occurred to you as worthwhile could well change your entire worldview if conveyed by a compelling professor.
My piece of advice, however, is not to confuse a great professor, in the sense of an inspiring and effective educator, with a “great” professor. We all know the ones — their resumes are replete with books they published in the 1970s; their Wikipedia pages contain accolades from former United States presidents; they wear tweed and fill the YUAG auditorium. The allure of these professors is more than understandable. Coming home for Thanksgiving break and being able to tell your high school teachers and distant family that you’re taking a class taught by the fabled ‘so-and-so’ will undoubtedly give you an aura of success. You’re living the Yale dream.
I by no means want to give the impression that these “great professors” cannot also be great professors. (And as an aside, what constitutes a great professor can vary widely from person to person — it’s all subjective.) For many, they are. But it’s important to remember that their ‘greatness’ does not necessarily make them infallible, nor a good fit for you. I’ve found that too many Yalies fill their schedules with the greatest-hits version of what Yale has to offer: massive lectures taught by storied professors. And students will sit in these lectures halls writing down these men’s (and no, I’m not just picking gender-normative pronouns; let’s be honest, they’re more often than not men) particular views of the world verbatim, too enamored with their clout and social standing to take a moment to think critically about what it is they are being taught. When the time comes to write a paper, they dutifully regurgitate all they have been told, respecting the professors’ authority and wisdom too much to dare to disagree.
Not too long ago, I was given the very advice I’m now offering, and by someone whose opinion I respect very highly: my father. When I was considering taking a particular class, which shall go unnamed, I asked my dad for advice. His response, advice I wish I had followed, is so good that I thought I’d include it. He said to me: “This class is great men pontificating. By the end of the class, you will have learned a great deal about the special way these men view issues. But will you have been taught a framework that, with the passage of time and the accumulation of greater wisdom, will permit you to come to view issues in a manner that is special to you?”
I took the class anyway, but I don’t regret it, and here is why. If you, like I did, still insist on surrounding yourselves with the best and the brightest storied professors around, do so with the knowledge that these professors can still be wrong. They can still make flawed arguments and be blinded by biases. You’re even allowed to find them a little boring at times –they’re not untouchable. Go into these ‘great’ professors’ classes ready to challenge and engage with everything they try to tell you as fact. That way, you’ll be able to truly gain intellectually from the experience.
The fact of the matter is, these ‘great’ professors have a great deal of knowledge and experience on their side, and more often than not they probably will be right. But if you go into their classes alert enough to find the holes in their arguments, you’ll be even better equipped to agree with the pieces of their lessons that withstand your criticism. Don’t go into a class simply for the sake of hero-worship. “Great professors” are not always great professors, and it’s only by calling their bluff that you’ll learn anything worth holding on to.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a senior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.