The idea of a university… is to teach!

The best professor I ever had was Dr Butterfield, or Tony as he asked us to call him. He taught our senior lab courses in the chemical engineering department at the University of Utah.  He put together the most beautiful and humorous presentations before lab that made you appreciate science and the scientific method for its beauty and rigor rather than hoops through which you need to jump to get your degree.  His lecture on ethics in science was the best I have yet seen in an engineering course; most are tacked on at the end of a course series because it’s an ABET requirement.  He and his teaching assistants when to painstaking effort to make sure that grades were fair, and that students understood what they could do to improve, giving you grades like 9.3875/10 (each fraction of a point being accounted for in the very clear and precise rubric).
It is professors like Tony that make me want to continue to reach my dream of being a professor.  I want to be a teacher that inspires students.
Contrast that with a few counterexamples I have encountered in my college experience.  As I was discussing the teaching load with one professor, he dismissed his teaching as “equivalent to taking out the trash.”  In another encounter, I raised what seemed like a controversial statement that I didn’t think should be controversial: why don’t college professors have to go through some form of formal teacher training, like elementary and secondary school teachers do?  The response I got was that those who get teaching degrees and certification are “just learning classroom management skills”, making teachers sound like glorified babysitters.  I think that there is something more to being a good teacher than just knowing a ton of stuff.  I think it does take a measure of training as well as a measure of dedication and sense of purpose.
I got thinking about all this this week as I was reading “The Idea of the University” by John Henry Newman.”  His opening paragraph:
“The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following: –That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge.  This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement.  If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students.”
The purpose of a university is first and foremost to teach.  Unfortunately, our modern rewards systems seem to switch these around.  I am grateful for the teachers and professors who have inspired me, and I hope to be able to do the same some day.
Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University by Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, Harvard University – Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, Harvard University, Copyrighted free use,

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