Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Lecturing as Stand-Up Comedy

Steven A. Shafer

Since I've just been proclaimed an outstanding teacher, I thought I would share with you all my secret of success: Stand-Up Comedy.

You see, what's wrong with education today is mainly that too many educators have some vague notion that they ought to be just like some 18th century philosophy professor in an old European city, full of classical knowledge about obscure but vitally important thoughts that other people had in the past, which they expound with an aura of dignity and ceremony. If the student doesn't get it, it's only because of youth and ignorance, diseases that are curable unless the student is too weak to live. And if the student gets nothing out of the lecture, that's OK because all the modern theories of education justify giving bad lectures on the grounds that students don't learn anything from lectures anyway, only from hands-on experience.

Personally, I reject those theories, siding instead with Lord Rochester, who said:

When I was young, I had seven theories about raising children.
Now, I have seven children and no theories.

The sad fact is, I will never be a great classical scholar, in fact I'll never even be wearing pants without wrinkles and chalk dust all over them. Yet, by some miracle, I've been reasonably successful as a computer scientist -- so somehow this model of the educator as a font of classical wisdom has to be wrong, at least for me. Instead, I've developed a new approach of using stand-up comedy as a model of education. My goal is not to elevate the students spiritually by linking them to the great masters of the distant past, but rather to reach out, even to a lecture hall full of 100 or 200 students, and in effect tickle each one with a feather, saying, "Wake up! You can do this! Furthermore, it's fun! And, one day, you can even get a paycheck for doing it!"

What happened was, one day, while talking to some of my former students, I realized that the only two things they explicitly remembered from my class were the most outlandish and exciting assignments, and the jokes in the lectures. Of course, the jokes aren't random, they are an integral part of how each bit of the message sage is conveyed. But, in the deliberate crafting of jokes into the text and slides of the lecture, the provocative language and punctuation in the notes to set up the dramatic or funny punchlines, and the careful and systematic presentation of information leading to each climax, what I'm doing is just like what a stand-up comedian does. But I have the advantage of moral superiority, in that I'm not only entertaining my audience, but insinuating the entertaining bits into a serious technical presentation, so that it sneaks up on them -- they think they're listening to a comic show, but actually it's a real lecture. Furthermore, the message that underlies it all is that this technical stuff is really dramatic and really fun, it's not at all dry and abstract.

So if any aspiring young teacher or communicator wants to also win awards like this one, my advice is: Start watching "Evening at the Improv" and do the same thing. But work it into the technical content, and above all, have fun with your audience.

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