May 08, 2003

My Thought for the Day

A teacher is not a performance artist.

(And that's the one thought I've had all day: my mind is numbed by my students' term papers and my toddler's tantrums).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 02:47 AM

and the student is not an audience member

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at May 8, 2003 03:52 AM

...but a good performance during lecture can certainly facilitate the retention of content. How many professors have we seen give the most horrendously boring talks at conferences? No matter how brilliant the thoughts of those professors are, if it is presented without some degree of passion (which is not synonomous with frenetic) I will lose all interest. (The same is true for academic writing!)

My presentations border on the verge of "peformance art" (without the pudding and nudity) and I routinely get students excited in the least desirous courses our department has to offer, provoking many of them to undertake senior theses (our department has nearly 1000 majors, so this is a major feat) or go on to do other forms of research.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 8, 2003 05:24 AM
3's also good to know that my toddler (actually 3-year old) is not the only child who tantrums. I think tantrums and genius are highly correlated. At least I'm counting on it for my Nobel Prize or Guggenheim. :-)

Posted by: John Lemon at May 8, 2003 05:26 AM

"I think tantrums and genius are highly correlated."

I think that's just a line the parenting gurus push in order to keep the rates of child abandonment in check :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 12:28 PM

A teacher may not be, but a lecturer, to some extent, ought to be.

Teaching is the general category, and encompasses lots of things. Lecturing is a specific part of some teaching, and if you can't make a lecture engaging, you probably ought not to do it. The only excuse for a boring, unengaging lecture is:

a) There is no available written material which delivers in compressed form what the teacher needs to communicate to the class in terms of information;


b) The teacher doesn't have the time or the desire to create and disseminate written material that communicates that information, and would prefer to speak it.

Otherwise, if you're lecturing, it's because you regard it as the *best* way to deliver some important information and knowledge, and the only argument I can see for it being the best way to do so is that the teacher can make that information more compelling, meaningful and interesting by delivering it in person.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at May 8, 2003 02:13 PM

A mind-stultifying combo, to be sure.

Posted by: Steven at May 8, 2003 02:33 PM

I agree that there is a performance aspect to lecturing. Also agree with the need to make things interesting and engaging.

With a large lecture survey course, frankly, I'm not above pandering: using something gory or sensational as a point of entry into something more serious. If the topic is "Rome: From Republic to Empire," for example, I don't mind talking about the gladiators: it wakes everyone up, and raises potentially interesting points about the enactment of power through spectacle, etc. The bubonic plague, also, is always a hit.

I was reacting to something I had read (offline) which seemed to me to go too far in the direction of teaching as performativity. I think I have a lecturing "persona" that is not the same person a student would talk to in private, but not an entirely different person, either.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 8, 2003 02:42 PM

This might sound a bit odd, but I find some comfort in the performance artist metaphor, at least from this perspective. When I was first teaching (and felt that I wasn't really getting through to my students), someone gave me some great advice: You have to play for the people who are dancing.

I began to accept the fact that several students would just give me surly (or more likely dazed) looks (like the annoying people who talk during a concert) and focused more on the students who were responding to "the show."

This metaphor isn't precise: I require more participation from my students than an audience at a performance, but it helped me to find ways of focusing on those students who bought into (or were willing to listen to) what I had to offer.

Posted by: chuck at May 8, 2003 02:45 PM

Eh, I don't see any positive *harm* in a teacher thinking of him/herself as a performer, as long as it is remembered that there are certain rules and goals to classroom performances that do not necessarily apply in theatres.

Willing to be wrong -- but thinking of myself as a performer, and applying the skills I learned while acting and singing in school and college, is probably about the only thing that made me a tolerable teacher at all, work ethic (and I had a strong one) aside.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 8, 2003 02:46 PM

The teacher is always "on stage." He/she can never be fully human, because to do so would mean sacrificing your sanity. If everyone had access to your real self, you would most likely crack. The performative aspect of teaching isn't dishonest, but a measure of self-protection. I guess that is why many teachers burn out (aside from low pay and bad working conditions of course); they open themselves too wide and allow students access to their "human" side. My teacher/performer persona is a lot more outgoing and talkative than I am in "real life." I am also more intense when I am in the classroom compared to my couch-sitting-Andy-Griffith-Show-watching self.

Posted by: Cat at May 8, 2003 02:59 PM

I like the division between teaching and lecturing (the latter being a subset of the former), but even in teaching my small seminars, I try to create a sense of drama (and I'm one of those quantoid types who teaches statistics). I never bought the excuse that today's kids have shorter attention spans (because of MTV, video games, etc.). Boring today was boring five decades ago. The difference now is that the universities have institutionalized ways for students to complain about boring (i.e., student evaluations).

Posted by: John Lemon at May 9, 2003 03:15 AM

Oh, yes, and I agree the "tantrum = genius" line handed to use by child psychologists is probably just a bunch of horse manure...but please don't burst my illusionary bubble for at least a couple more years.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 9, 2003 03:17 AM

Sorry, John! Parents need ideological mystification. That's what gets us through the day (and night).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 9, 2003 03:57 AM