TITLE: I'm Not Being Funny Here
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: December 22, 2006 5:10 PM
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
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
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.