The Alumni Association is honoring 26 NC State professors with the 2014 Faculty Awards for their outstanding work in the classroom, in the laboratory and in the field. We talked (via email) with some of the recipients about their work and the keys to being a successful professor.
Today we’re visiting with Dennis J. Werner, JC Raulston Distinguished Professor in the Department of Horticulture Science. Werner is one of seven professors being recognized as a Distinguished Undergraduate Professor.
What prompted you to become a professor? That I became a professor was not a consequence of a “grand scheme” that I planned early in my life. My path to becoming a professor was simply an inevitable consequence of a life-long pursuit of doing what I love to do. I have always enjoyed studying and experiencing the natural world, especially plants. In my childhood and youth, I engaged in gardening with my parents and grandparents, and developed a passion for horticulture. Going to a university to pursue these interests seemed like a good opportunity and the natural thing to do. My undergraduate and graduate school pursuits were in horticultural science, and at the time, I was thinking that I would pursue a position as a plant breeder in the private sector after I graduated. As I had very little opportunity to teach during graduate school, being a teacher in a university was something I had not given much thought to. When the opportunity arose to apply for a position at NCSU, one which I subsequently garnered, it included a significant teaching responsibility, which I have thoroughly enjoyed during my 35 years here at NCSU.
What are the keys to being a successful professor? As a firm believer in the old adage that “actions speak louder than words,” I like to think that my philosophy about teaching and instruction is demonstrated through my actions in the classroom, and that this philosophy is clearly and positively perceived by the students I teach and the colleagues with whom I work. My philosophy is simple. The best teachers are those who are highly knowledgeable in a particular subject, and who have the passion and commitment to share that knowledge with others. Effective teaching is really about caring and respect: care and respect for students and the institution such that one does the very best they can do each and every day, and putting students first in one’s daily list of priorities, even when other activities such as research may be more visible departmentally and university wide.
I am a firm believer that teaching can be enhanced by technology, but that technology is no substitute for effective teaching. Some of the best classes I have had were with instructors who had nothing more than a blackboard, a piece of chalk, and an eraser. What they had were passion about their discipline, and a love of teaching. If one doesn’t have those ingredients, no amount of technology will substitute. Sharing one’s passion and love of learning with student’s is critical, for doing such often instills passion in students for the subject matter.
I strongly believe that it is important to communicate to students during the first class of a semester that one enjoys and is committed to teaching, and then to back up those words with actions throughout the entire semester. I am also a strong advocate of communicating to students the shared responsibility that exists in the classroom: the responsibility that I have to them to do my best job, and the responsibility they have to themselves, to the instructor, and to society to do the best they can. I try to develop in them a sense of responsibility and a sense of purpose. They need to appreciate that to be recognized as a professional, they need to develop and exhibit professional work habits, professional skills, and a professional attitude, and that each class is a new opportunity in which to do this. I believe strongly that in the classroom, the instructor needs to set high standards for himself and for the students. Students need to be challenged academically in order for them to reach their full potential. I believe that many students often don’t realize the full benefits of being challenged in the classroom, or the true value of a course, until they have departed NCSU and entered the profession. I have found many times that a student will raise their personal level of commitment if the instructor sets high standards in the classroom.
In the classroom, it is important for an instructor to try to minimize or remove any barriers between himself and the students. Yes, an instructor is in a position of authority in the classroom, and must make it clear through their words and actions that they are in charge of the course and the classroom. However, I feel it is important as an instructor to convey to students, either individually or collectively, that you care about them, and their academic and professional progress. This can be accomplished by getting to class early, or staying after class, and speaking with students on a very informal basis, or taking advantage of the informality of laboratory sessions to inquire about their other classes, their past professional experiences, and their professional goals. Many students who are struggling to find a sense of purpose and identity respond very positively to simple faculty attention and interaction. Lastly, with all due respect to research and outreach programs, I believe that teaching is the most important function of a university. We have a professional obligation individually as educators and collectively as an institution to give as much of ourselves to students as we possibly can. They and their families deserve nothing less.
What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a professor? My greatest satisfaction is to see that students have responded positively to my passion for the discipline of plant science and horticulture, and have themselves developed a greater passion for the subject matter throughout the semester. I like it when they say “WOW.” “Wow moments” are wonderful!