Which areas are taught best?

Joanne asks a good question:

Everything else being equal, are there subjects that lend itself to
better teaching by professors? I've always chosen classes mostly on
professor teaching quality as measured by anonymous student surveys,
but was wondering if there are certain classes of subjects where one
could find better or worse teachers?

This may sound odd, coming from someone with a Ph.d, but I don't feel I have much experience being a student.  A lot of the time I didn't pay attention.

A foreign language is especially hard to teach well.  What can you do with verb conjugation?  Microeconomics can be taught well.  Literature.  Classes that can be taught well make for easy narrative and vivid anecdote.  The instructor can be enthusiastic without it seeming forced (not the case for introductory accounting).  The students can be presented with relatively high-level material even in lower-level courses; poetry and literature illustrate that principle.  Finally, the class must have actual substance, which rules out any number of offerings, best left unlisted.  It's harder to teach macro well because it's less likely the instructor actually believes the material.

The best teachers I ever had were Hilary Putnam for Philosophy of Language and Charles Pine for calculus, plus H. Bruce Franklin for literature.  Franklin was (still is?) a Stalinist and he edited The Essential Stalin.  Barbara Jean Glotzer taught a very good Algebra II.


Few students like Thermodynamics, whoever teaches it. A friend of mine attended a class where the tricky bits in a deduction were covered by "and so it follows, as the night the day.." and "It is not beyond the wit of man to see that..".

Math. Except for a couple unintelligible accents, I've never known a bad math prof. I'd guess it's a field that tends to draw people who are genuinely passionate about the work (contrast with some fields that are a last resort for people confused about what to do with life). That and I don't see it as having much of a "those who can't do, teach" population. Engineering tends to have a great deal of the latter problem.

Language is also difficult to teach because it does not lend itself to the classroom setting. I probably learned twice as much in six months of private lessons (in Russia) than in my four years of study majoring in Russian in college (in the USA). And the average class size then was a mere 10-15 students.

I'd compare it to teaching Music History versus teaching an instrument.

I actually had a a great intro accounting professor. He was extraordinarily passionate, and clearly loved his work. Auditing stories make for great anecdotes (e.g. having to use dipsticks in vats of foodstuff because a while ago a desperate salad oil company leveraged their inventory as collateral. However, they didn't have nearly as much inventory as they claimed, and so pumped mostly water into the vats with a little bit of oil, which of course rose to the top. See http://academic.cengage.com/resource_uploads/downloads/0324312148_70202.pdf )

Interesting about Putnam, as he has, I believe, a reputation for being a bad graduate adviser and hard to deal with. (He had many famous grad students, so maybe the reputation is undeserved, but my impression, from talking with many Harvard PhD students, was that he was a bad adviser. That's compatible, I guess, with being a good undergrad instructor.)

Foreign language can be taught well but usually are not. Much more drilling and repetition and boring exercise is needed than most students or teachers will put up with. Most college-level language instructors in the US have little, if any, training in teaching a language and have little idea of how to do it. But, I worked for some time in a foreign languages department in a Russian pedagogical university and was strongly impressed with their achievements. Even the worst students, on graduation, were better than all but the very best foreign language majors in the US, and this without the advantages of study abroad and the like. Many of the 2nd year students spoke their language better than a graduating foreign language major in the US. The differences were almost completely pedagogical and due to the fact that they were taught by language teachers, not people who really and primarily wanted to write on foreign literature or cultural studies* but who had to teach languages for their bread-and-butter classes. (*) I've nothing against such professors at all, but they don't make the best language teachers.

I guess a related question might be: In which areas is the difference between autodidacts and the professionally trained least / most obvious? Is there an overlap between this scale and the hard / easy to teach scale?

I have a second defense of intro accounting professors. Mine was very good. His facebook fan club group has 320 members, and describes his class as, among other things, "for the people that know what it is like to wake up and want to go to class at 8am hungover because the teacher is just that awesome. "

My favorite professor basically made up a set of classes to teach the books he was interested in, and those classes are difficult to describe or categorize for anyone who hasn't taken them. That's an extreme case, but there may be some sort of rule underlying it regarding how standardized a course is versus how much the material reflects the personal interest of the professor.

Given that the commenter is relying on student evaluations, it's probably also worth asking if there are subjects in which people tend to be more or less critical of instructors. (I don't have a good sense of that, although as someone who went to a college (Harvey Mudd) with extraordinary undergraduate instruction, and who subsequently taught (Latin, and I agree that foreign languages are tough to teach), I know *I* tend to hold my teachers to a pretty high standard. ;)

That said I took two courses on thermodynamics completely voluntarily; liked the first, loved the second. And I too have had a good track record with math teachers (withh a few notable exceptions). Although math is a funny case, since I think it's also the field most amenable to autodidacts.

My best teachers taught acting, literature and philosophy.

I've had a lot of bad teachers in math and physics, but then I've taken a lot more courses in those subjects.

Andromeda, interesting. Good for you. Engineering famously has weed-out courses and thermodynamics seems to be the one around here, whether by design or not. And I believe they are actually used to test how well a student will teach themselves, and thus they actually make a virtue out of bad teaching.

So, it's a good exercise, but probably an impossible task to separate the student from the teacher from the subject from the program.

The instructor can be enthusiastic without it seeming forced (not the case for introductory accounting).

Double entry account is wonderfully elegant and to think that it was developed so long ago and was in use in at Florence and Genoa the end of the 13th century.

My run of math professors were quite awful. There was the fellow who couldn't tuck in his shirt that insulted students and laughed at them in front of the class, who lost assignments because there were papers all over the floor of his office but still gave you no credit for them. There was the fellow with the complete disconnect between what the lectures covered (theorem, proof, no remark) and what was expected come test time (application, no theory to prove). And the fellow who put off all the tests until the end of the semester so we had NO feedback over the course as to whether we understood the material or not so that we had one wicked curve (+30-40 points) to get the distribution 'right'. ... The fellow who showed us what his research entailed was relatively benign and I still remember what his research was and why it was interesting. I should note I got my high grade in the classes, so these aren't sour grapes speaking.

By contrast, my econ teachers who taught math found ways to make the class - if not all the material - interesting, kept a tight focus between lecture, assignments, and tests, had reasonable expectations, and universally became people I admired.

I would add computer science as a field that can not only be taught especially well, but where the variance in instruction quality can be extremely high. Depending upon the instructor, an introductory CS class can be as boring as introductory accounting or vital and inspiring.

Even Stalin thought it a good idea to kill Stalinists on occasion.

(Not that they should be killed of course)

So, Tyler praised a self-confesed Stalinist.

Let's hope he's never up for a federal job, since he just met the standard for inclusion on Glenn Back's hit list.

BTW, courses that can be administered online, or automated with maximum efficiency should be the easiest to teach.

Ian, whats up, man?

The people who should be judging the quality of a professional teacher are the people who rely on the students' proficiency in the subject the teacher taught. Students are after grades, not proficiency, and they don't like being in class.

A charismatic/entertaining teacher who consistently gives high marks will be universally regarded as a great teacher by students. I doubt these qualities have much correlation with average student proficiency in the subject, as measured the day after the final exam.

I had an excellent Thermodynamics professor.

Dr. Melany Hunt at Caltech presented thermodynamics in a logical, stepwise process, broke down the laws and explained how and why we needed these assumptions, how they are supported by evidence, and what conclusions and technologies arise from these fundamentals. Many students thought the course was an "easy A," but only because she did such an excellent, engaging job of explaining the discipline that doing the copious work and tests was easy, because you knew what you were doing, and you knew you knew. That confidence is key, and was quite welcome.

Nah, nah, man, I think macroeconomics is taught the best, man. Like, totally. Out of all the people who have taken it, like, 95% go on to managing an economy well enough to get 3% growth rates. That is clear proof that the ideas about macroeconomic phenomena are correctly communicated.


I think the problem is quite complex. Dealing with that requires understanding the value that professors bring to the business of learning, and a topic's mixture of complexity, motivation, and conceptual-ness (vs. detailed-ness). I answer more completely here

I'd second the math. Mostly because I learned very well in class and seem to lack any ability to teach it to myself outside of class, and my friends that have TRIED to teach it to me end up not helping at all.

I could not disagree more with the comments about math being taught well. The question is "where are the good teachers", not "in what subject can you learn it if you just try hard and read the textbook a lot". Many of the worst teachers I have ever had were in math, especially at the college level. This was at a top-5 undergrad research university so presumably they had a passion for the subject and a deep knowledge of it. I had good ones, too, but many would just do as Neal said, and copy the (poorly written) textbook onto the board: "Definition ... Theorem ... Proof ... Remark ... Motivation ... Definition ... Definition ... Lemma ... Proof ... Lemma ... Proof ... Theorem ... Proof ...". No, Neal, that is *not* what characterizes a good teacher or a good class. That's what characterizes the median advanced math textbook, and it sucks. Why are we doing any of this? What's the geometric interpretation? What was the historical motivation? All of those things went into my good math courses and textbooks and they were desperately lacking in the math department as a whole.

My favorite anecdote about the math teaching at my school is that the physics department had systematically cut back on the formal math requirements and started teaching the relevant technique and theory as part of the courses where it was used. They simply had no respect for the teaching in the math department.

The best taught class I have had was Metaphysics.

The best teachers are the one's who leave the most lasting impact on you without you knowing it.

That's why I'm concerned about Tyler's Stalinist teacher.

When you look at what happens in public schools when you change from unmotivated bad teachers to motivated talented teachers the big jump in scores is for math, not reading. I think in general it's easy to teach things that are very objective and revolve around algorithms and hard to teach subjects that revolve around intuition and have very subjective criteria.

I don't even know what it means to write a good literacy analysis--should it be fun to read or actually make a point? I suspect people will strongly disagree, so how can it be easy to teach people if no one agrees on what you're trying to teach?

"I would add computer science as a field that can not only be taught especially well, but where the variance in instruction quality can be extremely high. Depending upon the instructor, an introductory CS class can be as boring as introductory accounting or vital and inspiring."

Indeed, I started off college as a CompSci major, had a terrible experience with the Java professor, and decided it wasn't for me. I took one class with a great Econ prof, and never looked back, until now of course. In my experience, undergrad degrees in Econ don't distinguish you in the same way CompSci or Engineering degrees might.

Even the worst history profs that I've had were usually as good as best of other subjects. Ties right in with believing the material (as most of it is their own historiography) and being able to tell a narrative.

Unlike this comments list the math courses I had were universally aweful. I got through Math Stats 3 and Dif EQ 2 before they beat the love out of me. The engineering profs taught the math much better. With most of the math courses the text book and a couple of well placed office hours questions were the only way to get through. Of course most of that might just be a sorting on the math profs not being able to speak the english language. The TOEFL scores must have been something like 320 or whatever the min is.

The biggest thing I found in looking for good profs was before signing up for any prof, look up a couple of their published articles. If the last one was 20 years ago - don't bother they are retired on the job. If you can't read their writing - don't both as in person they will be worse. If they are unserious about their subject (i.e. all they write on is political drivel like most english departments) - don't bother, they might be charming, but that doesn't get you through a semester. A crisply written paper that was fundamentally serious about the subject was the best indicator of someone who would be able to teach and take it seriously.

Economics professors believe their microeconomics lessons more than the macro?

The "best taught courses" are those where the student is determined to get his money's worth from time spent taking the class, and perhaps even paying the tuition.

I've found nearly every instructor happy to provide critical insights and pathways to important further lines of study as a consequence of showing up in class on time with no cell phone, paying attention and asking relevent questions, and making the effort to ask advice or offer suggestions, even in the few minutes of picking up materials and walking down the hall.

Mention in passing that a great teacher happened to be a Stalinist, and we say to ourselves "huh, how about that" and think no more about it. Mention that someone is a great teacher but just happens to be a neo-Nazi, and we would flatly refuse to believe it. Not only because we'd consider it impossible for such a person to be even merely a good or adequate teacher, but because they'd never get hired or get tenure in the first place.

Should we not attach just a wee bit more... what's the word, now?... oh yeah... stigma... to Stalinism?

I've had plenty of good (and terrible) teachers/profs over the years. My favorite though was Robert L. Crouch for Introductory Economics at UCSB. He is a crotchety old man who made a point of calling on [dozing] students wearing bright colors, his handwriting was painfully bad and he didn't like typing. All of our class notes were done with a projector and his sharpie. His class was my single reason for switching to Business Economics over History/Political Science. Best decision ever.

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