Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Good Professors are Hard to Find

Whether it was hard to understand non-English speaking TA's or boring-ass physics lecturers in freshman physics, good professors in math, physics, chemistry, and engineering are really hard to come by. For some reason, despite the mastery it takes to obtain a PhD in one of these subjects, professors in these fields seem to suffer from one or more maladies. They are often boring, uninteresting, pretentious and arrogant, unorganized, or just too hard to understand. Or maybe they just lecture on one thing but test on another leaving their students heads spinning. The bottom line is a lot of professors in science and technical fields just suck. Physics professors in particular. I've had some good physics professors to be sure, but many of them are pretentious jack-asses, or they were just downright dull.

Well today I would like to acknowledge a good, no make that great professor. The guy pictured here is Pedro Embid. Pedro emigrated to the United States at the age of 17 and obtained his PhD in applied mathematics at UC Berkeley. Somehow he ended up at the University of New Mexico. I was lucky enough to be attending UNM (often called the University of Nothing Much) and took one of his courses. I was completely BLOWN AWAY.

Pedro is a model professor. I ended up taking several classes from him over the course of ten years. All that time, I never saw him use lecture notes once. He was like a PhD in a subject field should be-a complete master of his topic. Whether it was a graduate level discussion of distributions and hilbert spaces or partial differential equations-Pedro just knows his shit.

Not only that he delivers clear, perfectly organized lectures. He knows exactly where each and every lecture is going and doesn't miss a beat. He talks with enthusiasm, writes clearly, and makes his expectations crystal clear.

I once had a graduate level differential equations class from Pedro. It was very tough-run like a boot camp. Every week we had a homework assignment due-each assignment was exactly 10 problems. This was graduate level math so they were all proofs/rigorous type problems. It was very tough-but you knew what was going on and what was expected, and if you studied your notes you could get through it. You learned a lot and came out of there feeling like you could conquer anything intellectually.

Pedro lectures off the top of his head, but if you brought a camera in you could just photograph the black boards and publish them as textbooks. He has had at least two visiting professorships at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. Despite this, he is great with students. His office hours are packed with students clamoring to get every ounce of Pedro's mathematical wisdom they can get. I nominate Pedro as my first great professor of the month. Here are a summary of Pedro's skills:
  • He really KNOWS what he is talking about.
  • He delivers dynamic, interesting lectures.
  • He challenges the students.
  • His expectations are clear. He is tough but there are no left-field surprises physics professors love to dish out to make themselves look better.
  • He knows the history of physics and mathematics, and peppers his lectures with historical antecdotes.
Unfortunately a guy like Pedro is hard to come by. When you get into engineering, you end up with mostly boring drones. The field of physics is full of arrogant and pretentious types that think they're really special for figuring out the universe. Surprisingly, a lot of math professors are disorganized. I am thinking of starting a series called Pretentious Professor of the Week and posting websites of professors I couldn't stand in college. Care to nominate anyone?

I would like to hear people recommend good professors like Pedro.


Pollywog said...

Perhaps this professor might be convinced to write a book so that we can all benefit from his skill as a teacher.

GNH said...

I've actually broached the idea of having him make videos.