The Making of a Professor

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about what I need to do to be a great professor. I’m not suggesting that I am one. I’m not even close. I hope to be, one day, but it’s going to take effort, lots of mistakes, and constant vigilance against complacency.

One thing I’m convinced of, though, is that one of the things that defines a solid professor is his or her relationship with students. (The relationship among colleagues is important, too, but that’s for another day.) While I was thinking about this idea, I realized that my philosophy has largely been shaped by three of my own professors who have had immeasurable influence on me academically, professionally, and personally. And even though my relationships with all three continue today, I can trace my thoughts on teaching back to my undergraduate experiences with them.

Pam Doyle Tran, who is now the assistant dean for Undergraduate Student Services at The University of Alabama‘s College of Communication and Information Sciences, was my first college professor to eschew the title of “Doctor.”

“Just call me Pam,” she would say. This was coming from a woman who worked AND raised a family while earning her graduate degrees. She struggled and sacrificed for her PhD, and here she was telling a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds that we could skip the honorific. I remember sitting in her class and being immediately struck by the humbleness of her attitude. 

She displayed this attitude every day by getting in the metaphorical media trenches with us, teaching us how to do our jobs professionally and respectfully. She allowed us to see her as “one of us,” so much so that I might very well have been her first student ever to buy her a beer. I echo her every time I meet my classes at the start of a semester.

“Just call me Butler,” I say.

Frank Deaver has long since retired from Alabama’s journalism program. I guess that I was among the last few groups of undergrads to come through his classes. He, too, is a PhD, and he has traveled the world as a journalism teacher and trainer. Frank was tough. My first report came back with a “C” on it. Ouch. That kicked my butt into high gear. I vowed to myself that very day that if I could make an “A” in Frank’s reporting class, I wouldn’t care about any other grade I made for the rest of my college career (as long as I was passing, of course). 

Frank had expectations of us — high ones. We had a major project in which we planned a trip to our state capital. Each student contacted two weekly newspapers and promised them two stories each on some major political issues that were affecting their areas. We then drove to Montgomery, spent all day chasing legislators, spent the night, worked a little more the next day, drove back to Tuscaloosa, and then spent the next night banging out all of our stories for a next morning deadline.

I still needed another viewpoint for one of my reports, and it was very early in the morning. Nearing the deadline, I found a phone, called a potential source out of the blue, and — bless her — she agreed to be interviewed. I did some quick typing and editing, placed her quotations toward the rear of the report, and handed it to Frank with just a little time to spare.

“I don’t see another viewpoint,” he said while reading through my work. “It’s coming,” I said.

I made an “A” in that class. I remember working so hard because Frank expected it of me. If your professor doesn’t set high demands for you, then who will? He taught me to expect a lot of my students — and to be clear about those expectations — because to do otherwise is a disservice to them.

David Sloan, another PhD who is retiring from Alabama’s journalism program after this academic year, was not only an undergraduate instructor of mine. As I matured academically, he also was my Masters and PhD programs adviser. He is one of our country’s preeminent media history scholars. But back to my earlier days. He delivered a profound lesson when he struck me dumb as I sat in his Introduction to Reporting class. He asked a very simple question.

“Who in here can quote the First Amendment?”

Here I was, a student of journalism, a young man willing to be a champion of press freedom, and I did not know the First Amendment. I’m not so sure that I had even bothered to do anything more than glance at it. I was embarrassed. Mortified. A phony.

I committed it to memory. That’s the first step toward having a better understanding of it, and David cared enough to let me know that this was something important. I have preached his lesson at every opportunity. In front of groups of writers. At training seminars. And, in every class that I teach. It’s a requirement. Knowing the First Amendment is also a prerequisite for working at The Prairie, the student newspaper that I advise. I teach students every day who are going to become professional communicators of some type. If I don’t give them the push to know and understand the fundamental law that governs the freedom to express ourselves, then I’ve failed as a journalism professor.

David, Frank, and Pam led me by example. They pushed me to meet their standards. They challenged me to be more than mediocre. Their lessons continue to guide and influence me. All three of them are members of that most special rank of professor: mentors who also became friends. That just might be the greatest lesson a professor could ever teach.

One Response to “The Making of a Professor”
  1. faeriehazel says:

    Great post, Butler. Reminds me of the professors I met in college and grad school who really made me want to better myself so I could meet the expectations they had of me. Remembering those professors is always a humbling experience, especially now that I'm a teacher myself.

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