The ultimate professor

Justin Runquist

I’m an aspiring businessman. And over the past three years, C&F professors have never let me forget that. The financial statements, the stock tickers and arbitrary numbers I punch into my calculator really get my heart pumping by now.

Yet for a typical business student like me, you’d think the occasional walk from Bartley business world to the Tolentine think-tank would be a slow, lumbering one. Because let’s face it: when you’re passionate about a subject like equity markets, a literary class or a science lab just isn’t where you want to be.

But Villanova isn’t any ordinary University. And, during my three years here, Villanova professors haven’t seemed to fit the ordinary mold either. Because of them, because of our Catholic values and because of one certain professor, my walk from Bartley to biology class in Mendel Hall is a highlight of my week.

It takes a great professor to make a subject great. And, while I’m an Accounting major, most of my greatest mentors of all time reside in Saint Augustine Center. One of my Core Humanities professors, a former Fulbright scholar based in Florence, was the first inspiration for me to study abroad in Italy last semester. It was my Literary Experience instructor who got me hooked on leisure reading. And, because of the nature-lover who taught Physical Geography, I made a special trek to Sicily in April to climb an active volcano.

How could we ever doubt the wise Catholics running this place? These required courses in our curricula aren’t filler. They’re the introductory courses where we have the potential to better grasp our talents, our passions and our true calling. And professors of Villanova, it’s you that must challenge us to tap into that potential.

Some professors help us strike gold here. Some try, and we learn a bit, but overall they don’t quite relate to us. And, well, some are downright lousy.

But if one thing is certain, it’s the accountability in the academic forum here at Villanova. Sure, professors grade us. But it wasn’t until this week I learned that we, the students, grade the professors even tougher and ultimately set the standards here.

According to Dr. John Immerwahr, Associate V.P. of Academic Affairs and Philosophy instructor, our bi-annual grades on Course and Teacher evaluations (lovingly known as CAT forms) are “taken very seriously” by the University and professors. He said CATs serve two main purposes: evaluation and development. Fulfilling its evaluative objective, our CAT grades are meant to motivate our professors in some heavy ways: through their employment, their promotions and their salaries.

As for the CAT’s developmental objective, that’s where the proverbial rubber should hit the road. About a month after each semester ends, all University department chairs are supposed to review our CATs. They question our scores. They consider our written comments. As students paying a good buck here, we should hope professors sit in on the analysis, too.

That’s a look inside the machine driving our academic system here. And Immerwahr and a team are currently working to implement improved CAT evaluation forms and processes soon – possibly as soon as this fall. He said one key addition will be new, practical questions that will hopefully be more useful to faculty.

The CATs play an important role in the fabric of our academic experience here at Villanova. Another academic booster is a top-notch website started by seniors Nick Weber and John Fiedler their freshman year. Over 4,000 students have logged onto their site since – ranking instructors and courses by unique metrics, but most importantly, providing tell-it-as-it-is commentary to students picking classes. Their website, as well as CAT scores posted on Novasis, always serve as useful tools to bring students and professors closer together.

But I think back to those professors I mentioned earlier: the ones who inspired me to do something great, to head to Italy, to read good books, to have enough curiosity to climb active volcanoes. Those professors just had something special. You can’t quite describe what made teachers like them great, but their greatness was unmistakable. There was an intangible quality about them: one that cannot, and never will be, captured on a student evaluation.

Those teachers invoked wonder. They created mystery. Their passion invited you to like their subject whether you initially wished for it or not. In subtle yet profound ways, they challenged us to dig deep, consider the big questions and think about what we’re called to do with lives.

Mitch Albom explored this intangible quality in “Tuesdays with Morrie,” a book that should be required reading of everyone in academia. As his favorite professor was succumbing to ALS, he made a habit of meeting for a special “class” each week, by his bedside. Albom described it like this: “The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught by experience.”

As students or as professors, shouldn’t we hope for such a relationship?

Last week, while many others were merely distributing syllabi, my new biology professor led the best introductory class I ever sat through. He made clear his love of the subject, and why we should love plant cells and mitochondria too. What I appreciated most was his brief, informal mission statement regarding his career teaching biology.

To paraphrase, he said that in his study of biology, the more he learns, the more he realizes he still needs to learn. And that, in this difference, and in these unexplainable truths and consistencies in biology, he has grown to believe in the Divine. That’s a reason he loves biology, and that’s a reason I want to love it too.

There’s a case that, if just for a second, I find myself forgetting I’m an aspiring businessman. Maybe I’m just meant to remain an aspiring student after all.