Advance Registration brings about a plethora of new courses to choose from. Local legend whispers that you can enroll in seven-hour seminars on Existential Despair, or maybe even a course in underwater basket-weaving. Like many others, I view Advance Registration as the daunting task of curating the perfect schedule.
As a freshman, I looked at the long list of courses with wide and hopeful eyes. Maybe I’ll take a global seminar, I thought, or an art history class; the possibilities seemed endless. Now, with only three more semesters left until graduation, I am beginning to realize the limited opportunities I have to take the electives I’d wanted.
The task of drafting the perfect schedule can quickly shift from exciting to claustrophobic. With so many options, I become consumed with decision paralysis. I’ve learned to narrow down my choices based on a few key factors.
Instructor quality is my dealbreaker. With too many course options to fit into my primary registration cart, I search for the perfect professor. No matter the subject, I’m convinced that the elusive 4.0 quality rating means I’ll enjoy the course. This method has yet to fail me. Yet, I still haven’t figured out what makes the perfect professor.
I can readily share what makes a bad professor. If the class is too easy, assignments feel like busywork. If the course is too difficult, I'm the first to complain. Apathetic, monotone lectures at 8 AM are my worst academic nightmare. When Penn demands perfection, complaining becomes easy. I can conjure a laundry list of adjectives to describe my worst professors.
While I contemplated what makes the best instructor, I stumbled upon the Class of 1968’s Favorite Penn Professor Project. In honor of their reunion, dozens of alumni from the class of ‘68 recounted their memories of their favorite professors from fifty years ago.
They shared the long-lasting impacts of their professors, like how an instructor sparked them to change their major or pursue a PhD. One student even named his child after his Russian history instructor. Scrolling through this compilation, I wondered if 50 years from now I would remember my time at Penn as fondly as these alum.
Perhaps the one common thread amongst all the testimonials from the class of ‘68 is the professor’s attitude and heart. Ultimately, heart is what distinguishes a good professor from a great one. Life at Penn is hard. Kindness in the classroom makes all the difference.
Students are the first to feel the lack of empathy in the classroom. We saw this in 2020, when 500 students signed a petition over the changes to the MATH-104 curriculum. First-year students felt unheard and unsupported by their MATH-104 instructors. Looking back, I cannot recall an equation or formula, but I can vividly remember how small that class made me feel.
One day, like the Class of ‘68, we will reminisce about the kind minds that taught us.
For better or for worse, in fifty years we will remember the emotions associated with our professors. Names might be forgotten, but we will recall the inspiration or dread we felt sitting in a 10:15 a.m. seminar.
Empathy sticks around.
Instead of prioritizing course difficulty when selecting courses, focus on instructor quality. Trust Penn Course Review and word of mouth to find the courses that will reap the most reward. Maybe the highest-rated professor is teaching an 8:30 AM lecture or three hour seminar on Thursday evenings. While these are less than ideal details, in the larger picture, a better professor is worth sacrificing a convenient course time.
As finals season rolls around, it comforts me to know that like the class of ‘68, my grades won’t be my most salient memory from Penn. Reading the Favorite Penn Professor Project reminded me to be purposeful about choosing my courses.
Ask yourself if your course selection is one you’ll remember in fifty years. The days here are long, but the semesters are short. Semantics are forgotten, but empathy is ingrained. When the add-drop period opens, search for professors with heart.
Yet, the burden of empathy doesn’t rest on the instructor alone. If our professors were asked to rate their student quality, what would their answers be? Would they think we’re as kind with our understanding of them as they are, or as cruel as their midterms can be? Upon reflection, I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is this: empathy sticks around. Kindness in the classroom is a two-way street.
FIONA MILLER is a junior at Wharton studying Behavioral Economics and Social Impact from Roanoke, Virginia. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.