Just been watching a clip from last weekend’s Presentation Camp LA (which, if I’d known more than 12 hours in advance that it was happening, I’d have found some way of attending) — Lisa Braithewaite talks about the importance of enthusiasm, but she also touches on the theme of storytelling, about telling anecdotes that engage the audience. This TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he uses a string of often humorous anecdotes to make some very serious points about education, illustrates the power of storytelling to inform and educate.
I mentioned before that I’m not the best when it comes to anecdotes, particularly those acquired through personal experience. I have all this self-conscious stuff going on: “Oh but Chris, you talk about yourself all the time already …” That, and quite often my brain moves too fast for my mouth, so stuff comes out wrong. On the whole, I’d much rather listen to you tell your funny anecdote, and give a reasonable facsimile of it later to my husband, who doesn’t mind — too much — if I sometimes step on the punchline.
But to be an engaging presenter, sometimes you just gotta tell stories. So I decided I would make a list of personal anecdotes that I could use in teaching.
Guess what: I totally blanked. Nothing. Nada. Rien.
Brief rewind: I spent last Friday night watching Sarah Pascoe and Ardal O’Hanlon do standup routines, part of the Cambridge Comedy Festival. They were funny; it won’t surprise you that they were all about storytelling, and I found myself wondering how much of it was based in reality.
My own life is hardly dull, and while I’m constantly making jokes about the things that happen to me, these are entirely disposable; my humour is all about creating stuff on the fly, which is maybe one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much. But I just can’t really get my brain to do anecdotes, unless they are jokes I have told a lot (which is why the joke that begins “It is summer … it is France …” gets better every time I tell it).
The more I think about it, the more I realise that teaching is basically improvisation; a sort of educational stand-up comedy. It really helps to be able to use humour, and to deal with things on the fly, segue random dialogue back into your central theme and have everyone see how it fits in.
There’s also a synergy (a gestalt, if we’re flying the 800 Verbal flag) between a teacher and their audience that belies the common student expectation that teachers will somehow fill their passive minds with the knowledge they need; I don’t think students always realise how much they are a fundamental part of teaching, just as an audience is part of the comedy routine. This synergy is a beautiful thing: even if two classes are ostensibly the same, something different is created each time, because of that interaction between the teacher and the students. I often have to teach the same session several times, but it’s rarely the same twice, which is wonderful because it stops things from getting stale.
Kevin McCarron wrote a wonderful piece on his experiences as a lecturer and stand-up compere. In it, he raises several of the points I’ve been thinking about, such as the dynamic formed between teacher and students, but also offers some challenging opinions: for example, good political stand-up can make you angry, and McCarron argues that this can be highly educational. Evoking an emotional response from students is important; he reminds us that the students who drop out are those who have failed to engage.
McCarron also points out that if the audience knows the punchline, you don’t have to tell it. This can be a pretty frightening concept to academics, who are classically conditioned to be obsessively completist about information delivery. But it works beautifully: watch Eddie Izzard do it at the start of this clip (contains language NSFW). The audience does the work, and that’s the meat of the joke; learning is not a passive process any more than humour is. Izzard is also a master of the recurring motif: just when you think he’s wandered off into the wilderness, never to be seen again, back he comes with the punchline. A good comedian — a good teacher — takes you with them on their journey, and the more outlandish (=memorable) it is, the better.
Kevin McCarron’s article, which I hope you will read, also turned me on to this book by Oliver Double, stand-up comedian and lecturer, which I have ordered. We need to think a lot harder about that dynamic, that synergy, in the classroom, and McCarron is right: doing a PhD does not prepare you for teaching.
So, yeah, I’m gonna learn to tell anecdotes. From a book. Because that’s how we do things in academia :P
(When I originally googled “teaching is like stand-up comedy”, I found this, which was exactly what I was looking for, except that (a) it was a bit short on laughs and (b) I couldn’t finish it, it was so dull.)