Monday, October 10, 2005


Teaching as Performing

This is a promised response to Ryan over at Raining Cats and Dogma to his post "Song and Dance," in which he considers whether it's good that he's as much of an entertainer as he is when he teaches. He asks, "How entertaining a teacher are you? Why/not?" and rather than respond in comments (which had I done so, I would have hijacked them in a wild and conspicuous manner) I decided to write something about this over here.

First of all, I think that this post that I wrote a couple of weeks ago, in which I talk about students' responsibility as learners and responsibility for the success/failure of a class, does relate to this question of performance, but maybe not in the way that you might expect. Because I think that what I think (ooh, that's a lovely turn of phrase on this Monday morning - I apologize) is that in order to get students to be active and engaged one has to do the trained seal bouncing the ball on one's nose thing, at least at key moments, like the beginning of the semester or after midterm when everybody is both stressed out and worn out at the same time. One has to, as a good instructor, get the ball rolling.

So how entertaining am I? Well, if you know anything about me from reading this blog you've got to know that the first answer that comes to mind is entirely narcissistic - "I am the most entertaining professor in the land! Hurrah!" But seriously, I think that I'm quite entertaining. My evaluations are always unbelievably high on the "How enthusiastic is your professor" question (which makes me think that if this whole professing thing doesn't work out I might have a good shot at making it as an actress). But I think that what's important is not the fact that I am entertaining so much as what purpose my entertainment of them serves. For me, it's only worth being an entertainer if it gets them engaged; if I'm up there jumping through rings of fire and they're staring at me blankly, 1) I'm not actually entertaining and 2) what I'm doing is pointless. For me, all of the show of professing is ultimately about getting them to join the show.

And so I think, if you are like me and you teach in classes of no more than 30 students (because I can't claim to speak for those who teach larger lecture-oriented classes), then probably the "show" only works if it gets the crowd doing something. Passive audience = bored audience. I imagine I'd feel the same way if I were in a band and people came to see my band play but they didn't dance or yell or scream. If they just sat there passively watching. Yeah, I wouldn't be into it.

But here's the thing that I think, for me, is most important: If the show isn't working, it's up to me to change the show. They can't do it. All they can do is stare blankly to register that things aren't going well. They can't boo or jeer; they can't walk out. Ultimately, unlike a real entertainer, I'm not singing for my supper. They're stuck there watching me whether I'm entertaining or boring; whether I'm a "good teacher" or a bad one. And so the mark of good teaching for me is not so much that I've got to be the best performer in the world but rather that I've got to be versatile in the kinds of roles I perform - I've got to know when to be joke-y and when to be quiet, when to let them run the show and when to take over. That, for me, is the challenge of performing in the classroom but it's also the thing that makes it interesting.

At my university I regularly end up in front of lecture classes that number in the hundreds, which does indeed give the idea of teaching as performance a whole other meaning. We teach from a literal stage, complete with cordless mic and as many props as we can muster. It is such as a disjunct for me and many of my fellow grad students/novice teachers. Most of us are pretty quiet people ordinarily, having been the good-student-types all of our lives. And here I am bouncing up and down on a stage like your seal. I knew that academia wouldn't just be burying my nose in books, and I looked forward to what I imagined "teaching" to be like. I just had no idea it would involve a big bouncy ball!
Performing is the way for me. I feel it is a natural way to represent words in the movement of the body. With a generation of visual learners, I think that it works.
Oooo, good point, Crazy: "If the show isn't working, it's up to me to change the show." Teaching is definitely one part showmanship and, like you, I think I can carry that part off rather well (which is beyond funny, when I'm such an introvert I can barely manage to introduce myself at social functions). Being responsive to what the students need as they sit out in the "audience," though, is much harder than most people would think. Thanks for the post!
I'm not a professor, but am starting my first year of teaching high school. I totally agree that it is up to us to "entertain" or at least keep their attention. Which with high school students only happens when I try to entertain. I liked your blog. I will begin reading it. I am new to blogging but am writing my own blog about my experiences as a first year teacher. First year teaching
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