TITLE: I'm Not Being Funny Here AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 22, 2006 5:10 PM DESC: ----- BODY: If you surveyed my students, I doubt that "funny guy" is one of the first phrases they would use to describe me. It's not that that I am humorless in the classroom; it's just that comedian isn't a natural part of my public persona. (At home, though, I am probably sillier than the average professor.) But I do try to take advantage of opportunities to have fun in class, whether with the material itself or with the many circumstances that arise whenever people -- and technology -- come together. I think that this sort of humor can be used to good effect in the classroom by any instructor. Of course, as with any skill, it takes some practice before most become very good at it. Whether we are natural comedians or not, I think we can all learn something from comedians. I was recently reading an article by a guy who had taken a class on how to be a stand-up comic. The way these guys learned the craft was largely by trial-and-error: They wrote a short act and then presented it in front of their teacher and classmates. The criticism could be brutal, but the feedback helped them learn lessons about writing and delivery. We learn to programming in much the same way, but we can take one of our best critics wherever we go: the compiler. I think we could help our students learn a lot more about programming and software design by adopting the stand-up approach more often: having students present their code to instructors and fellow students, to receive feedback from real people. This is a natural part of a studio approach to instruction, which can be adapted to classes of different sizes in a variety of ways. Jim Waldo of Sun talked about the role of one-one mentorship of this sort in his Essays presentation at OOPSLA 2006. But that article also suggested another way that we could learn from comics. The author asked Eddie Brill, who warms up David Letterman's Late Show audiences, what all the great comedians had in common. He answered, "They're honest, they're vulnerable, and they're not looking for approval." I think that two of these characteristics are no-brainers as essential to good teaching. An instructor must be honest. Students sense insincerity better than many people realize, and they do not like being misled in the course of their learning. This might seem difficult, considering that most CS instruction requires simplification in order to teach most concepts. If I feel I have to explain all of the subtleties of public, protected, and private when teaching Java to CS 1 students, I will lose them before they can really appreciate how much fun programming is. But I don't think being honest means dumping details on students unfiltered or unstructured by our expertise; it means not teaching them facts as dogma that must necessarily be undercut later. I try not to overstate the reach of the rules I teach my students, and wherever possible I let them know that they are learning a simplification that we will enrich later. College students -- and I think younger kids, too -- are savvy enough to understand these distinctions, and they appreciate being involved in the unfolding of knowledge. An instructor should never enter a classroom seeking approval. My students are not in my class to validate me, or to make me feel better about myself, or to boost my confidence. They're there to learn, to become part of a scholarly community. If I enter the room seeking approval, it will distort everything I do, from the material I choose to teach, to how I teach it, to how I evaluate their progress. The class isn't about me, it's about them -- or perhaps more accurately, about us and a set of ideas and skills, as we help them grow in what they know and can do. A comic who reaches out for the laugh will almost always be left wanting. Instructors reach out for the applause will either be left wanting by a disappointed class or will leave the room with a hollow and fleeting victory, having cheated the students. That brings me to the third characteristic: vulnerability. Doesn't this contradict the previous advice not to seek approval? Even if it doesn't, should an instructor really be vulnerable? I don't think that being vulnerable is a contradiction at all, which is why the best comics can have both characteristics. Vulnerability is about being invested in the process, about caring what happens, about being open rather than closed. Even when considered this way, I know that some of my colleagues would disagree with the assertion that a CS instructor ought to be vulnerable. "That's one way to teach, I suppose," they would say, with almost but not quite a sneer in their voices. "But my style is built on authority, not vulnerability." I think I'm willing to concede that one can teach effectively without being vulnerable in a touchy-feely sense, but I'm not willing to concede that the best instructors are ultimately vulnerable in the sense that they are invested in their students' learning, that they care deeply about what their students come to know. Among the gruffest doubters of my assertion, the ones who are good teachers have this trait. And I know that I certainly do, or I would never feel like this -- or like this. Now I know that I can watch Seinfeld and All in the Family with a clean conscience -- they can help me get better in the classroom. -----