Dear Future Professor: What I’ve Learned about Teaching Well

Walter E. Williams

Walter E. Williams is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

Dear Future Professor:

First, to be a good teacher one must develop confidence in himself and the knowledge he seeks to impart, which is easier said than done.  In September 1967 I was on my way to my very first class as a part-time teacher at Los Angeles City College.  I was indeed nervous; one might call it stage fright.  My confidence was lifted immensely by the thought “Why should I be nervous?  I know more economics than anyone in the class.”  Through my many years of teaching I learned one very important lesson.  The best way to learn a subject is to teach it.

Many professors, particularly those on the liberal side of the political spectrum, use their classrooms to proselytize students.  I've taught economics for nearly a half century.  Over much of that interval, I have routinely invited students to record my lectures so they do not have to be stenographers during class.  I have no idea of where those recordings have wound up, but if you find them, you will hear zero proselytization or discussion of my political and personal preferences. While accepted at most universities, I believe that to use one’s classroom to push one’s personal beliefs is academic dishonesty. 

Like others I have my own values and opinions, such as those expressed in my nationally syndicated columns and many radio and television interviews, but they never become a part of classroom discussion.  I tell my students that if they hear me say something subjective, without my having prefaced it with "in my opinion," they are to raise their hand and tell me that they took my class to learn economics and not to be indoctrinated with my values.  It is a cowardly act to take advantage of student immaturity by indoctrinating them with the professor’s opinions before the student has developed the maturity and skill to examine other opinions about an issue in question.

Personally, I want students to share my values that personal liberty, along with free markets and limited government, is morally superior to other forms of human organization.  I believe that the most effective means to accomplish that goal is to give them the tools to be tough, rigorous, hard-minded thinkers.  If they become tough, rigorous, hard-minded thinkers, I believe they will probably share my values.  Professors should be eternally cognizant of the fact that our job is not to provide students with ready-made opinions, but to train them to think for themselves and reach their own opinions.

Then there are some nuts and bolts to managing a class.  During spring semesters, I teach a 7:30 A.M. intermediate microtheory class.  My first class orientation consists of telling the students that this is a real college course.  They are going to be expected to start sentences off with capital letters, find a subject object and verb, and end with periods.  I tell them that the class starts at 7:30 when it is bitter cold.  It starts at 7:30 A.M. in April when the birds are chirping and they might prefer rolling over and catching a bit more sleep.  The students are then informed that there will be unannounced quizzes.  I also inform students of my cell phone policy which is the deduction of five percent of the total semester points of the student whose cell phone goes off in class and five percent of the total points of the students sitting on either side of him.  To assist the students, I suggest a couple of applications that they can download to insure that their phones do not ring between 7:30 A.M and 8:45 A.M. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  After I have laid out my classroom procedures, I tell students that if all of this is too challenging, they should drop the course.

When I return mid-term exam bluebooks to students, and if they disagree with the number of points given for a particular answer, I tell them that if they wish I will white out all of the scores for every question.  I would then give their exam to one of my colleagues to regrade.  I warn the student that there is a possibility that their score could decrease as well as increase.  Sometimes students are puzzled by this procedure.  I tell them that in my nearly half century of teaching no student has complained that he was given too many points.  I figure that I make errors in either direction but only one, too few points, is brought to my attention.

My most important message to a future professor is that he should love his job.  I so love teaching that I look forward to semester beginnings and as I have often said “The day that I die, I want to have taught that day.”

Image: Ohio State Normal College practice teaching group 1916 by Miami University Libraries - Digital Collection // Public Domain

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