What Makes a Teacher Great

Tufts faculty singled out for the Princeton Review's “The Best 300 Professors” talk about their classroom strategies
October 12, 2012

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Good teaching is a mixture of art and science—the ability to grab and keep students’ attention and convey complex information. A few jokes, props or stories don’t hurt. Three of Tufts’ best professors, according to a new ranking, say that explaining things clearly and getting students involved are the two most important elements for success in the classroom.

Robert Devigne, David Denby and Mary Glaser, faculty members in the School of Arts and Sciences, were among those rated the top 300 college professors in the United States by the Princeton Review, an educational service company, in conjunction with the website RateMyProfessors.com, the highest-traffic college professor ratings site in the country. The list, along with profiles of the professors, was published in The Best 300 Professors (Random House/Princeton Review) earlier this year. The rankings were based on surveys of hundreds of thousands of students and data from the website.

Denby, a senior lecturer in philosophy, says he encourages students to learn how to think critically instead of simply soaking up a lot of information. Even with detail-heavy subjects, “I tend to strip it down and focus on the key things and try to get them to talk,” he says.

One way he engages students is to pose arguments from their readings and get the students to attack the arguments, while he plays the devil’s advocate. Students are required to write out a premise, give a rationale and define technical terms. “It sounds rather dry, but it becomes second nature very quickly,” Denby says.

Denby is not above using puns for a quick laugh: “That’s putting Descartes before the horse,” he’s been known to say. Photo: Kelvin MaHis methods work. In a review on RateMyProfessors.com, one student wrote: “You don’t have to like philosophy to take Denby’s classes; his enthusiasm lights up the most boring of subjects. Lots of discussion for a large lecture class, and most of it is interesting … Watch out for Denby’s morbid sense of humor though—it will come up when you least expect it.”

One of the interactive methods Denby uses involves the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” which illustrates why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. In this instance, Denby asks students to choose their own grades based on the assumption that good grades are relatively scarce. He says the exercise illustrates how each person acting sensibly can lead to everyone being worse off. “Everyone gets Ds when they could be getting Bs,” he says, noting the example helps highlight the work of philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Denby is also not above using puns for a quick laugh: “That’s putting Descartes before the horse,” he might tell a student.

Glaser, a longtime senior lecturer in mathematics, says she works hard for clarity. “I try to peel away some of the complexity and distill it down to something accessible,” she says. “I move beyond some of the terminology to get to the root of what’s really going on, using graphic descriptions to explain topics.”

She tries to get to know her students, asking them at the beginning of the semester to write a brief autobiography, letting her know where they come from, whether they have pets, what restaurants they like. “I want students to be comfortable enough to ask questions,” she says. “I tell them that when they ask a question, there are probably five other people in the class relieved you asked it.”

“I want students to be comfortable enough to ask questions,” says Mary Glaser. Photo: Kelvin MaShe will use props and analogies, if they will help make a point, using a target with Velcro balls, for example, to show how two different inputs to a function are always associated with two different outputs.

Glaser’s students say she is wonderful. One wrote on the ratings website: “She’s funny and is able to explain the material in many ways in order to help her students. She’s also very accessible and willing to give extra help. Gives extra materials that other professors don’t offer and prepares students well for exams.”

Students also rave about Devigne, a professor of political theory. Wrote one: “Western Political Thought is the hardest class I’ve ever taken at Tufts—and it is by far the best one. Both lectures and readings challenge your world view in a way that will make you a different person when you finish the class. He is a complete genius, and one of the most interesting teachers I’ve ever had.”

Political theory and philosophy courses examine how such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau and Nietzsche shaped and influenced Western political tradition, and Devigne’s classes revolve around concepts like justice, liberty, citizenship, oppression, war and empire.

“We question human nature and other areas that are of deep concern to students, but they’re not spontaneously drawn to them,” says Robert Devigne. Most students have had little exposure to such ideas before college, “not thinking about the deepest thoughts that have characterized Western life,” says Devigne. “We question human nature and other areas that are of deep concern to students, but they’re not spontaneously drawn to them. It’s thick reading, and it takes time.”

His gratification comes from the lively give and take in the classroom. “I love the material,” he says, “and have devoted my life to writing and researching and teaching it. When teaching goes well, and you’re able to get a number of students deeply involved in debating and discussing these issues, it’s extremely rewarding.”

A student writing about Devigne for a Tufts publication described his classroom presence this way: “He gets angry, yells about things and tells hilarious stories from his own experiences (for example, getting mugged in Wisconsin, or welding in the assembly line for the Ford Pinto) that somehow manage to perfectly explain the philosophical principles of Hobbes or Marx.”

Denby, Devigne and Glaser praised other teachers they know who work hard to create vigorous and thoughtful classrooms. While pleased to be recognized for her teaching, Glaser notes, “I have lots of great colleagues. The list missed a lot of people.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu

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