America’s Top College Professor

America’s Top College Professor

Fayetteville, Ark.

Elliott West doesn’t seem like the coolest guy on campus. With his tweed coat and thinning hair, he appears to be the stereotype of a studious professor, only truly at home among library stacks or in a dusty archive. But Prof. West, who teaches American history at the University of Arkansas, is in the midst of a heated public competition: He is one of three finalists in a contest that will confer a prize on the best college teacher in America. In the highest sense of the word, Prof. West is a competitive performer.

The prize itself—sponsored by Baylor University and called the Cherry Teaching Award, after the late alumnus whose donation made it possible—is one of the biggest money awards that an American professor can win ($200,000). And its measure of merit is not scholarly output but classroom performance—that crucial aspect of the teaching mission that is so often overshadowed, these days, by the arcana of specialized research and the mad race for publication and tenure.

The Cherry award seeks out college teachers who, according to both students and fellow teachers, are especially good at making clear, forceful, inspiring, knowledge-rich classroom presentations that actually help students to learn. The finalists this year include, in addition to Prof. West, Roger Rosenblatt of Stony Brook University and Edward Burger of Williams College. Each has been asked to deliver a public lecture at Baylor and another lecture on his home campus. The winner—chosen by a panel of Baylor-appointed judges—will have the privilege of spending a semester teaching at Baylor (as well as cashing that hefty award-check).

On an unseasonably warm fall day here at the University of Arkansas, hundreds of Prof. West’s students and colleagues, along with interested observers, are crowded into a standing-room-only lecture hall to hear him talk about “The West Before Lewis and Clark.” Over the course of 45 minutes he spins stories of three individuals living beyond the Mississippi in the century before the great explorers set out. The French man, the Spanish woman and the Osage Indian are, he says, meant to illustrate how the West was the setting for an “imperial tussle.”

Prof. West is not a comedian. There are occasional moments of levity, as when he cites an article about the French man, who, at the age of 15, murdered his ship’s captain: “Precocious depravity,” Prof. West says with a chuckle. There is a PowerPoint presentation running behind him, but it is a series of old maps and photographs. No words are flying around the screen. There is no audience participation, and there are no props either. Prof. West does not go in for theatrics. But the people filling the seats are rapt. No one around me is whispering or even checking his iPhone.

Over lunch, Prof. West tells me that “every teacher needs to find his style” and that his is “old-fashioned lecturing.” He observes that he has become more “conversational” over the past 40 years of teaching; not once during his lecture did he consult any notes. Professors, he says, need to figure out how to play to their strengths—by listening and watching their students carefully. “I look out at every class to figure out what’s working and what’s not.”

There are tricks and devices that can help. For instance: “Never underestimate the power of dead air.” Prof. West advises “asking a question and simply waiting for the answer.” He has noticed that “people will get very uncomfortable and start squirming, until someone will try.” For the really tough crowds, he says, he will surprise them. They think that he is carrying around a cup of coffee, but actually he has candy inside and when someone finally answers a question correctly, he will throw a piece to that student. He smiles slyly: “It’s like training seals.”

Edward Burger is not Elliott West’s polar opposite, but Mr. Burger, a professor of mathematics at Williams College and another finalist for the Cherry award, is a magnetic personality. When we walk into a restaurant in Williamstown, Mass., on a Friday night, he is the most popular guy in the room. Freshmen keep coming over to introduce him to their families, who are in town for first-year parents’ weekend.

At a lecture on Saturday morning, hundreds of families pack the hall to hear Prof. Burger talk about, well, math. The audience is rolling in the aisles as he proves, mathematically, that an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters could produce “Hamlet.”

Like Prof. West, Prof. Burger believes that empathy is the key to good teaching. Whether he is teaching a seminar at Williams or a class of 200 at the University of Colorado, where he has been a visiting professor, Prof. Burger says that he wants “to think about what it’s like to be sitting in that audience, in a sea of people, when the professor is so far away he’s a dot and I’m looking at overhead transparencies. What is that experience like?”

Prof. Burger says that the role of a teacher is to change lives. His own path was changed as an undergraduate. He planned to be a lawyer, but the math professors at Connecticut College “just kept feeding coal into the fire.” And so he went to graduate school “to find out what math really is.” He never got to law school.

As much as he finds math fascinating, he realizes that most people will not use calculus after college. The utilitarian promise “is an empty one,” he notes. “You don’t need to know how to build a bridge to go over one.” He says that the hardest thing professors can ask themselves is “the 10-year question.” “What will my students retain from my class 10 years out?” And so his lecture is devoted to showing the audience how to “think mathematically.”

Prof. Burger, who acknowledges being one of the tougher graders on campus—”I don’t give grades; I just report the news”—says that he is only convinced a student understands a concept when he can “explain it to an 8-year-old.” I wouldn’t put it past him to bring a fourth-grader to class for that purpose, but he says he just forces students to explain concepts without using jargon.

It would be hard to imagine the Cherry award’s third finalist, Roger Rosenblatt, resorting to jargon. As a former commentator for the “NewsHour” on PBS, he has had to address, routinely, a larger and more general audience than either Prof. West or Prof. Burger. The lecture he gave at Baylor a couple of weeks ago, on “why we tell stories,” was relaxed and entertaining. But not too entertaining. “You can be entertaining at the expense of being useful,” he told me recently. “At the end of the class, they think ‘Wasn’t he delightful?’ But they don’t learn anything.”

Like the other finalists, Prof. Rosenblatt says that it took him a while to develop a style. But the most important thing young professors can do, he says, is “learn their subject well. Otherwise it’s just chatter.”

The best professors he had in school, Mr. Rosenblatt recalls, “worried about their subjects in front of us,” almost as if they were thinking aloud. “When I saw a teacher lost in thought in front of me, I knew I had the goods.” He mentions one in particular, John Kelleher, the late professor of Irish studies at Harvard. “I hadn’t the slightest idea about Irish studies,” Mr. Rosenblatt says, but “I was smart enough to know that Kelleher was the man I wanted to study with.” It was “the seriousness with which Kelleher took learning and the seriousness with which he took students that was a model to me.”

That Mr. Rosenblatt, a best-selling writer, public commentator and playwright—in short, a man who has other opportunities open to him—takes his students so seriously is a testament to his love of the profession. “I like my students,” he explains. For the thousands of less famous professors across the country, there is almost no incentive to focus on teaching to the extent that these three men do. Both Prof. West and Prof. Burger have spent significant amounts of time helping high-school teachers learn how to teach better, mentoring them and even, in the case of Prof. Burger, producing videos to help instruction.


All three finalists emphasize that teaching is something you have to work at. It takes time to prepare. It takes time to practice. It takes time to process the feedback from students. Maybe that sounds obvious. But the truth is that many professors don’t bother. It’s an old observation but a true one. At most colleges, promotion and tenure decisions are made based on a record of publication. Even at liberal-arts colleges, studies have shown that a financial premium is placed on publication.

And so last year more than 100 academic books were published on Shakespeare alone. According to a recent study by Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, the number of academic publications has soared more than 400% in the past half-century, to 72,000 from 13,000 per year. Meanwhile, universities continue to subsidize such work by giving reduced teaching loads to faculty members who publish. All told, a typical humanities monograph could cost as much as $50,000. Is this what parents are paying tuition for?

As senior professors are engaged in this endless publication, inexperienced and overworked adjunct professors and graduate students are engaged in teaching. Prof. West says that he could probably request to teach only graduate seminars if he wanted, but he actually enjoys teaching undergraduates. In an ideal world, senior professors, who have the most experience teaching, would be forced to teach freshman survey courses. Instead, professors at many universities are told by their mentors not to focus on teaching at all. And the joke on many campuses is that the winner of a school’s teaching award is guaranteed to be denied tenure.

All three Cherry-award finalists are well-published in their respective fields, and they don’t think that a professor must focus on one or the other. But the truth of the matter is that they are the exception.

Some academics say that publication is easier to measure than teaching, and that is why the university has settled on the system it has. And, alas, many parents have bought into this idea, not even bothering to check out what’s going on in the classrooms before signing their tuition checks. But student and peer evaluations can certainly go a long way toward correcting this measurement problem. There are surveys like the National Survey of Student Engagement that can be used to measure how much time students spend working outside the classroom, how often they interact with professors, and how bored they are in class. John Silber, the former longtime president of Boston University, told me that he never gave professors tenure without sitting in on their classes first. He insists that it is pretty easy to tell a good teacher from a bad one. “I damn sure wouldn’t hire or promote a faculty member to anything like that salary without having known what they are doing [in the classroom],” he told me recently.

The winner of the Cherry Teaching Award will be announced next spring. Prof. Rosenblatt will be delivering his lecture at Stony Brook University, part of New York’s SUNY system, next week. Like the other lectures, his will be open to the public. Prof. Rosenblatt’s competition is stiff, but if parents want to see what good teaching looks like—and if Mr. Silber is right, it should be easy to tell—they could do worse than to watch a Cherry award finalist in action.