What makes a great teacher? The kind that all the students love but also respect? Kelly Ferguson contemplates this question in her opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Desperate to be Liked.” When I asked my advisor for recommendations on professors I should observe as part of my co-teaching class, one of his top picks was Mike Aust. He explained that Aust tends to focus on practical skills that students might need for future jobs rather than the more liberal arts, learning-for-the-sake-of-learning approach. And, he added, “I’m not sure what it is, but students adore him.” In taking the Contemporary Pedagogy course this semester, I feel that the goals of education can be contradictory. On the one hand, we are supposed to inspire curiosity in students and make them excited about “the adventure” of learning. However, we should also make the material relevant to the students so that they can connect meaning and significance to their own lives. Other students in the Pedagogy class become unsettled when anyone mentions jobs after college, as if career options should not be even a passing thought when talking about education, because, you know, we should be developing the individual instead of perpetuating the factory line of students priming themselves for the work force, usually a rant or two about capitalism, yadda yadda, go Bernie, etc. I guess that, as with most things, some sort of balance between the two extremes is probably best most of the time—passing on your own passion for a subject to your students but also tying content in with the real world. But I was curious how current professors tackle this dilemma and what the response is among students.
Within the first few minutes of the class I observed, Forest Boundaries and Roads, with Aust, I immediately understood why everyone is a huge fan. He was really nice and welcoming to me, and, when I originally e-mailed him asking if it would be okay if I sat in on a class, he got back to me right away. In terms of his teaching, what stood out to me the most, oddly, was his voice. I guess with the emphasis on expressing excitement to students about subject matter, I always interpret this as acting excited with wild gesticulations or cheesy call-and-responses (“who’s ready to learn about Darcy’s law?! I can’t hear you!”) in the fashion of a spin class instructor. That works well for some people, but Aust certainly does not follow this strategy. Instead, he speaks slowly and methodically, explaining the steps and checking to see if everyone follows the problem he just worked on the board. As a result, I was able to follow perfectly well how to calculate bearings, even though it was the only class I attended. All of the problems and lecture material were couched in real world, job-related contexts. I felt that all the students were genuinely “engaged” (to use everyone’s favorite word) and taking notes, asking questions, and making sure they were following Aust, much more so than in many classes I have taken throughout my school career. This occurrence may stem from the fact that Forest Boundaries and Roads is a small (maybe fifteen people) upper-level course with a lab, where the students will be expected to take what they learn from the lecture and put the skills to use in the woods. In addition, I think that most of the students that take this class do so to gain experience for a specific job, so maybe that is why they pay attention so well. I know this is biased because I am not taking the class for credit, but I enjoyed the class so much that I was not eager to leave at the end. However, no one else started packing up early or said anything when Aust ran over time by one minute. This observation may be due to the odd timing of that particular class or because the students are more respectful upperclassmen, but I suspect they were also enjoying spending time there.
In her article, Ferguson mentions some of the “hip” professors that receive glowing evaluations from students: they usually have tattoos, wear turbans, and have students perform a dance from Boogie Nights in lieu of a final exam. Ferguson comically laments that she will never be this professor. Mike Aust is also not a “hip” professor, at least by that definition, but this does not prevent iPad-clad youth of the 21st century from loving him. I can pick out several things that Aust does really well. He has a calming voice and is super friendly, which makes him approachable. He obviously knows his stuff, so students can look up to and respect him. He works through problems slowly to make sure everyone understands, but not to the point of becoming boring. All of the problems and examples are realistic, and students see the use of these skills beyond the classroom. And, even though, yes, his class is very practical, he clearly likes what he does and shares that enthusiasm. I was also (ironically maybe?) inspired by what Aust did not do “well,” at least according to the latest trends in pedagogy. His PowerPoints were simple, not laden with text and such, but they also were not full of pictures, YouTube videos, and animations. There was no group discussion on what roads mean to each of us. Granted, I have also taken wonderful courses with teachers that did rely more on these last elements I mentioned. The good news for Ferguson and myself is that there is no one right way to be a great teacher. Maybe the hip, young professor that plays indie rock during class will be everyone’s favorite, or maybe it will be the professor closer to retirement that wears flannel and shows PowerPoint slides with equations on them. I think the most important thing is to be genuinely yourself, and Mike Aust certainly is just that.