THE EFFECTIVE, EFFICIENT PROFESSOR
5 June 2011 , Articles
Teaching, Scholarship and Service
Phillip C. Wankat, Allyn & Bacon, Boston, 2002
Reviewed by Nidhal Guessoum (CAS/Physics)
It is not easy to be a successful faculty member. University professors receive no training or preparation for the various tasks they are expected to perform, ranging from the not-so-obvious delivery of effective lectures and thorough-yet-fair examinations, to building and managing an efficient scholarly career, to finding time for countless service calls from the university and society at large – not to mention personal life. Unfortunately, the range of expected contributions and commitments keeps widening; for instance, a 1999 UCLA survey showed that 67 % of 33,785 instructors listed “keeping up with new technology” as a major source of stress .
Help has recently come, in the shape a good, scholarly (over 400 references cited) yet down-to-earth and to-the-point book by Phillip C. Wankat, who is the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor and Head of Division of Interdisciplinary Engineering Studies at Purdue University. In addition to being an established chemical engineering professor, Wankat has also spent many years doing research in the field of education theory and practice.
The work is divided into the following parts: Introduction (Effectiveness and Efficiency in Academe); Part 1 – Time Management Techniques for Academics; Part 2 – Effective and Efficient Teaching; Part 3 – Effective, Efficient Students; and Part 4 – Scholarship and Service, which includes the book’s conclusion – Making Changes.
The book adopts a textbook style, with many examples, exercises, and tips. Practically every chapter starts with the fictional story of a professor that illustrates the main problem to be addressed in that chapter: “Professor Harvey Jones likes to lecture… Harvey is proud of his lectures… Unfortunately, the students don’t have the same opinion of his lectures.” Or “Assistant Professor Alonzo Jefferson really did want to write. It wasn’t his fault there was never time… The university rewards assistant professors with promotion and tenure for adequate teaching and excellent scholarly publications.” The book has an attention-grabbing style but makes sure it includes substantial amounts of information that its readers will find both interesting and useful.
Faculty, as everyone knows, have too much to do. Wankat concurs: “forty hours a week is probably the minimum a full-time professor can work without incurring the wrath of department chairs, deans, trustees [etc.]”. The main problem, according to this scholar, is that professors are inefficient: they tend to overestimate their actual work hours, by almost a factor of 2, and there are too many time-wasters these days, from e-mail to people interrupting real work. Wankat tries to show that professors can be successful at being both effective (“Effectiveness is doing the right thing in a way that works…”) and efficient (“Efficiency is doing something in a fashion that minimizes time or maximizes the amount of work accomplished.”). The rest of the book is, in effect, a long series of analyses and suggestions as to what works in each area of our academic lives.
Here are a few of the many tips Wankat gives about efficiency: “Schedule one morning a week to work at home”; “It is important to have some ‘alone time’ every day”; “Schedule growth or professional development time every week… This is a time for learning new skills, such as new research methods in your discipline, new computer hardware, or new software.”
The best part of the work, in my view, was the one on teaching, to which almost half the book was devoted. The author proves himself to be well versed in all the recent and effective teaching methods, as well as in the modern cognitive and psychological theories. He reviews all aspects of teaching very methodically and extensively and provides illuminating and original advice on many issues. For instance, his first advice to professors is to be “authentic”, meaning true to themselves, even if that contradicts students’ usual preferences; authentic professors leave a more lasting and genuine mark on the students. The section titled “Increased Student Learning: What Works” contained 24 very useful advice items (divided into “student actions” and “teacher actions”).
In my view, the best chapter in the book is “Lecture-Style Classes”, where Wankat offers a suite of pertinent observations and suggestions. To start with, I was surprised to learn that in a 1998-99 UCLA survey, lecturing was found to be used by only 47.2 % of professors, and that class discussion was reported by more professors! The author sets out to show how lecturing can be improved as a teaching mode. First he reminds us that learning must remain the students’ responsibility and that most of it should occur outside of class. For instance, one should not attempt to cover every important point, especially those points that are well presented in the textbook. Moreover, one should make sure that students come prepared to the class, although everyone knows this is very difficult to achieve. Furthermore, students sitting in the classroom are not necessarily learning, especially if they are comfortably sitting in a passive mode. Here Wankat brings up another striking issue, that of the students’ attention span. He cites several studies that have found this attention span to range between 10 and 20 minutes! He concludes: “Fifty minutes of straight lecturing does not work… After approximately 15 minutes of lecture, most students need a short break. If the teacher does not provide the break, the students take it anyway… The rare exception occurs when the lecturer is very enthusiastic and achieves a high level of audience involvement throughout.”
Throughout the book, the author insists on a non-traditional role to be adopted by professors. In the classroom, he advises us to “choreograph the lecture.” He goes further: “Remember that you are preparing for a dramatic performance, but lectures should be more spontaneous and involve more audience participation than plays.” In some cases, he goes overboard, as when he encourages professors to take “a bowl of wrapped candy or dried fruit [to a] test” in order to “quietly encourage the students and give [them] a sugar boost. I have found cookies to be equally effective – homemade are preferred, but store-bought will do…” In another section, he gives more such advice: “When a student does come to office hours, be welcoming, or the student may never return. Avoid sitting behind your desk, and consider offering the student a snack… I keep a jar of Hershey kisses on my table for visitors.” And more: “Extensive surveys of undergraduates show that retention is positively correlated with their overall satisfaction. Two factors that boost students’ satisfaction are talking to faculty outside of class and visiting a professor’s home.” One is tempted to comment: What has the profession come to?!
Still, I hasten to add and stress, the book is very strong on pedagogical and cognitive issues, with a clear discussion of interesting and useful theories and models of learning and teaching, such as Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive objectives, Kolb’s theory of learning styles, Piaget’s theory of intellectual development, Perry’s theory of cognitive development in college, Lowman’s two-dimensional model of college teaching, and others. There are also many sections that would greatly benefit the students – and seem to have been written for them (directly or indirectly) – such as the “Learning how to learn” section or the full-page table on “Effective Student Use of Class Time”.
The last part of the book, devoted to “Scholarship and Service” is also very interesting because it includes the latest trends in broadening the definition of scholarship (Boyer’s seminal ‘Scholarship Reconsidered’ ) and in integrating research with teaching and service. Wankat calls for a “synergy” between these areas; for instance, “classroom research can be used to improve instruction, and this scholarship can be developed into presentations and papers.”
In the area of scholarship, the author enlightens us with some statistics: “More than 40% [of professors] have not published any writings in the last two years, while more than 20% have never published an article in an academic or professional journal. At the other end of the spectrum are the 4 to 6 % who have written or edited more than five books.”
Another useful contribution of Wankat – original as far as I could tell – was the formula he proposed for deciding whether one should go ahead and prepare a grant proposal when its outcome is far from evident; he suggests that one calculates a benefit/cost ratio as follows:
Benefit/Cost = (Probability of being funded) x ($ of grant) / (Hours to prepare),
where the (Hours to prepare) is roughly proportional to the number of the pages needed for the proposal.
Finally, I found the “Thoughts from the trenches for administrators” to be amusingly pertinent. I will only quote the following passage from it: “Higher level administrators should be directly and personally involved in teaching, advising students, or other interactions with students. Green  states that administrators below the president should ‘make every effort to teach.’ This does not go far enough. The president and all academic administrators should teach at least one class or seminar a year.”
Wankat ends his books by asking: “Is it possible to have it all?” He believes it is not, but adds, quoting others: “There is no requirement that the cost of excellence [be] suffering. Since professors can, to a large extent, choose how to spend their time, balance can be achieved.”
To conclude, this book constitutes a very useful review of everything we faculty members do, what we should avoid, what we need to change in our approach, and what steps we must take if we want to methodically improve various aspects of our work.
Among the book’s drawbacks one must cite its ambition to be exhaustive, to the point of including items that are only marginally related to the book’s central theme. For instance, the author provides a full-page table on “Commonsense Tips for Efficient Travel”, a table on “The Principles of Zen Driving”, and other such items… The book also seems to have suffered from weak editing, of its sometimes-informal style on the one hand, and of its overly extended contents on the other hand.
I do recommend the book to every colleague, and of course to our library.
 Ko, S. & Rossen, S. “Teaching Online – A Practical Guide”, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001
 Boyer, E. L. “Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate”, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton 1990.
 Green, M. F. ”Why Good Teaching Needs Active Leadership” in Seldin, P. & associates, “How Administrators Can Improve Teaching: Moving from Talk to Action in Higher Education”, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1990.