Lessons from Stand-Up Comedians

The May 2004 edition of The Teaching Professor has an article about teaching lessons to be learned from stand-up comedians.

This is the gist of the article:
  1. "A" material

    • Distribute your best material over the semester.
    • You can get away with occasionally dull classes if the next class is lively and engaging.
  2. Delivery

    • Like good comedians, good teachers learn timing. Learn to be comfortable with the silence that often follows a question. It often means the student is thinking.
    • As experts in our fields we have often forgotten how unfamiliar the territory is to novices and thus how long it may take our students to formulate an answer. Be patient. Practice your timing.
  3. Audience considerations

    • Don't assume a presentation, a project, an exercise is bad because it fails with one class. Classes are different and you may find the same material succeeds with another.
    • Over time, strive to understand the variations in classes so that you can better anticipate how to present material to a specific class.
  4. Change with the times

    • Vary your material. Update it. Let it grow with your discipline, your interests and the interests of the students.
  5. High road or low road.

    • Don't pander to students just to be liked. Lively discussions don't necessarily mean that good learning has occurred. Neither entertainment nor arguing for the sake of arguing is a substitute for education.
    • Students, motivated by natural human laziness and by lack of belief in self, may resist the actual work of learning. But they love knowing things, becoming skilled. A class that offers nothing but entertainment may amuse but will leave the students feeling cheated in the end. Learn to be interesting, but not at the price of education.
  6. Improvisation

    • All teachers are eventually faced with the need to improvise. When preparing class, always be sure to have one or two issues related to the lesson that you can explore with students if you have time.
One of several episodes from my first, inglorious year of teaching involved a class which, I believed, I had taught particularly well. I had presented the material, provided a few examples and the students had indicated by mute nods of the head that they understood. I was thrilled with my own educational prowess until I glanced at the clock and realized that I still had 30 minutes of a 50-minute period to go and I hadn't a clue what to do with all that time!

These are good reminders, nice pegs on which to hang some of the ideas we all have about class. Hope these are as helpful to you as I find them for me.