10 Warning Signs of a Bad Professor

Here are telltale signs that the instructor is less than stellar and that the class might be a dud.

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Many students are heading back for the second semester of college this week. How the semester goes will depend heavily on the quality of the courses they've chosen. Many students will consult sites such as www.ratemyprofessors.com, their college's own evaluation systems (when public), and the general scuttlebutt from their real and virtual friends. But it's always better to size the professor up yourself by attending the first couple of lectures, then dropping the course if you think the professor is bad. But how do you tell? Here are our 10 surefire signs that your prof's a dud—and that you should get out while there's still time:

1. The professor is boring. Even in the very first classes, you can tell if the professor presents the material in an interesting way. Be especially alert for professors who stand up there and read large sections of the lecture from their notes. If it's a snoozer in Week 1, it's going to get excruciating by Week 15.

2. The professor is bummed out. If a professor comes in on the first day of classes already grumbling about how much he or she hates teaching this course, how much he or she would like to be teaching at a better college, or how teaching is a waste of his or her time (because research is where it's at), don't expect things to get any better as the course progresses. Rule of thumb: Bummed out to start gets more and more bummed out, exponentially, as the weeks drag on.

3. The professor doesn't give out a syllabus—or hands out a one-paragraph syllabus that is just the course description from the Web. Professors who don't distribute a detailed syllabus probably don't actually know what they're going to do in the class this semester.

4. The professor isn't clear about the requirements and how much they count. Professors who don't have a clear and comprehensible idea about how the grading will be handled can end up springing all sorts of wacky or inconsistent grading plans on the students. Often students in this sort of class never know how they're doing during the semester and end up with unpleasant surprises at the end.

5. The professor assigns an undoable amount of work—or no work at all. In the first case, the professor has unreasonable expectations of the students—the kiss of death for any student trying to do well in the course. And while the alternative—little or no work—might seem tempting, it's likely to result in a course where you learn nothing.

6. The professor has incredibly petty rules. Bail out if you encounter a syllabus with page upon page of rules dealing with everything from the use of cellphones to whether you can wear caps to an exam; how to address the professor; when you can enter the room and when you can exit the room; policies about eating, drinking, and using the bathroom; 25 acceptable reasons for an extension and 53 unacceptable reasons; grade penalties for lateness timed to the half-hour, etc. Look, you're taking a course, not rewriting the healthcare system.

7. The professor can't fill the whole class period. Lots of professors hold a short session the first day: They introduce themselves, go over the syllabus, and call it a day. But if class is let out early the whole first week, you can be pretty sure that the professor is inexperienced, is a bad planner, or, worst of all, doesn't really give a damn about the course. Sure, you'd like to blow it off early every day. But why cheat yourself out of the education you've paid for?

8. The professor seems unsure about the material. Professors who present their lectures in a halting or tentative way could well be professors who aren't on top of the course content. You might think that colleges would hire only people who really know the material backward and forward, but you'd be wrong. It's not at all uncommon for faculty to be saddled with a course in which they have no expertise. Why should you be saddled with it, too, if you've got a choice?

Extra sign. If the professor says he or she is going to "learn the material with you," run for the exits. That's professor-speak for "I don't know my a** from my elbow about this stuff."

9. The professor presents the material in a confused way. Every lecture at college should have a clear structure: an introduction, a main part, and a conclusion. If your professor's lectures are all over the place and you can't figure out what the main points are—or when and why the professor has moved from one point to the next—something is definitely wrong. Example: The professor isn't able to explain the stuff in a way the students can understand. In street language, he or she can't teach.

10. The professor never involves the students. If a professor attends only to his or her notes and never even looks at the students—or never pauses to invite or accept questions—it's not a good thing. A good class is a dynamic class, and a good professor engages with the students.

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