Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
PROVO Randy Bott doesn't sugarcoat the challenges his Brigham Young University students will face when they serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He tells it like it is during the missionary preparation courses he teaches, with a mixture of wit and wisdom, and they love him for it.
They love him so much that Bott is the highest-rated professor in America in 2008 at RateMyProfessors.com.
"Everyone says before you leave BYU, you have to take a class from Brother Bott," said psychology major Cassandra Lawyer, a 22-year-old senior from San Diego.
A staggering number of students follow the advice. This year alone, 3,149 have taken Bott's classes. That's a full 10 percent of BYU's student body.
Ratings posted at RateMyProfessors.com by more than 190 of his students placed him just ahead of a business law professor at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y. The Web site has 7.5 million student-generated ratings for more than 1 million college professors.
"It's ruined my life," Bott said with customary deadpan humor. "My colleagues ask me if they should bow or curtsey. I am by no stretch of the imagination the top professor in the United States."
Ironically, Bott told the Deseret News last month that fellow religion professor Susan Easton Black is probably the best teacher at the school.
BYU ranked seventh on the Web site's list of highest-rated faculties, but Bott's place at the top isn't a surprise based on the teacher evaluations students complete every semester, said Terry Ball, BYU's dean of Religious Education.
"Randy's always in the top 1 to 2 percent with his evaluations," Ball said. "Our religion professors get very high scores. If you're not excellent, you're not average. Randy's among the excellent of the excellent."
Students consider him a mission coach and self-help guru.
At the start of his mission prep class on Monday night, Bott asked which of a couple hundred students had received mission calls in the prior week. One woman stood to announce she will be going to Portugal in February. A man was called to go to Brazil in April.
Bott also asked if anyone got engaged during the week. None had. "Huh," Bott said, shaking his head in sadness at a sorry group. "Anybody manage a date?"
Short, stout and 63, Bott wore a white, long-sleeved shirt and tie. A low-lying crown of white hair circled his head topped by a wisp of white on top. The packaging made him wonder at the RateMyProfessors.com rankings. "I'm a bland person," he said. "I'm not audio-visually friendly."
The smile came after the joke.
To his students, Bott is like a cool older uncle or grandfather who makes you laugh, makes you feel good about yourself and sometimes tells a family secret when parents won't, but only to teach you and help you love the family more.
On Monday, Bott spent part of the class preparing students in case they have a bad companion for a few months. LDS missionaries serve in pairs, and they must remain with their assigned companion 24 hours a day. Some won't get up at 6:30 a.m., as required.
"I had hoped with the raising of the bar we had weeded out those who were unmotivated and unworthy," he said. "I keep hearing from missionaries around the world they're still out there in living color."
A few missionaries consider suicide, and others battle depression. Bott provided practical advice for dealing with those situations, culled from three years spent as a mission president in Fresno, Calif., and from former students across the world, men serving two-year missions and women serving for 18 months.
He peppers his teaching with highly relevant stories drawn from those sources and his own mission to Samoa.
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