Lessons from my best professors

By Ben Newman

Where do professors fit in a world of on-demand knowledge? Over the last twenty years, the internet has undermined academia’s monopoly on facts. Now, AI disrupts education yet again by democratizing access to writing and creativity (among many other things).

I’ve been at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for three years studying strategic communications and areas in philosophy, politics and science. Despite having many great professors, the rise of AI makes me wonder about what the future of higher education looks like. With facts so easy to gather, organize and present, how can professors provide something of value?

I wanted to put together a few things I’ve learned from my best professors. They exhibit excellent practices that have made a great impact on me and will keep them relevant beyond the curve of change.

My best professors organize knowledge in a unique way

They distill complicated concepts into bite-size insights and know that facts are cheap: presenting a unique story is their role. In one class, the professor taught the foundations of environmental science strictly through the lens of our campus. We calculated the energy use of certain buildings, traveled to the recycling center and visited the steam plant that powers the HVAC systems (very cool). His unique insight; to teach a body of knowledge through a relevant lens, brought the class beyond anything that could be found on Youtube.

My best professors guide students to make human insights 

They teach students how to sort fact from fiction and form supported opinions. This is crucial in the age of misinformation and the rise of AI. In a philosophy class, we debated and explored multiple sides of controversial issues (like abortion and gender rights) from the lens of morality – not politics.

My best professors teach students to live in uncertainty

They acknowledge that the past is important but may not inform an uncertain future. This perspective is harder to find in a stable institution like academia. One class invited tech leaders from companies that survived the early internet. I was inspired by their tolerance for uncertainty and the power to lead transformation.

My best professors inspire students to be charismatic

So what if facts are cheap in the age of the internet and AI. The best professors energize students with this knowledge to become teachers and advocates themselves. Although AI tools like ChatGPT may be “experts,” they lack the charisma of a human being, something crucial in sharing and receiving information. My best professors also form peer relationships with students for further learning.

My best professors make learning a conversation

They recognize that learning happens best when students engage in discussion. They listen and learn from their students. And the professors meet students at their level, tailoring conversation topics to student interest. We students are of the “I” generation and for good or bad, expect tailored content. But, when good professors start by meeting us at our level, they can ultimately steer us towards the things we should care about.