Here We Are Now Entertain Us
Here’s Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, putting forward what might be the motto of the contemporary edutainment industry:
I was taking an advanced calculus class and my instructor was reputed to be a fabulous researcher, but he barely spoke English. He was a very boring and bad teacher and I was absolutely lost and in despair.
So I went to the campus tutoring centre and they had Betamax tapes of a professor who had won teaching awards. Basically I sat with those tapes and took class there. But I still had to go to the other one and sat there and wanted to kill myself.
I thought at that time, in the future, why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?
We’re still not quite there. In university you’re still likely to be in a large lecture hall with a very boring professor, and everyone knows it’s not working very well. It’s not even the best use of that professor’s time or the audience.
I don’t want to argue that college lectures ought to be boring, far from it. I spend a great deal of time trying to engage my students and to make my subject matter — political theory, which some believe to be dry — seem relevant and exciting.
But I’m struck by the way that Wales really captures in such a short quote what so many students are looking for these days (incorrectly, I think).
First of all, Wales points out that his calculus professor barely spoke English; there’s no other justification given for Wales’ claim that the professor “was a very boring and bad teacher.” Speaking with an accent, not being “from here,” is a major complaint from students and, for some reason, it’s associated with bad teaching. I have a leg up on some of my colleagues simply because I’m obviously American and I speak in unaccented English. Does this make me a better teacher? Not necessarily, but the perception amongst students is that it does. I learned introductory German from a Chinese graduate student whose English was limited but whose German was not. Did I learn introductory German? I did.
Secondly, Wales notes that his professor was supposedly a first-rate researcher. He goes on to suggest that the professor’s time would be better spent on research rather than on teaching. In this case, perhaps; in general, I don’t think so. Great researchers are usually among the most effective teachers … even if you have one or two examples of bad teaching from your own education. Why? I knw that I’m a much more effective teacher because of the research I do, as I’m able to teach my students about the newest books and articles I’m reading rather than just teaching the same material over and over again each semester. If I wasn’t doing research, my courses would get stale.
Finally, and most importantly, is the central claim that the test of education is whether or not it’s entertaining. Wales asks, “why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?” Is there evidence that the most entertaining lecture is the one that gets “knowledge into people’s heads”? Again, I’m not suggesting that a boring lecture is going to do the trick, but I’m arguing that entertaining students doesn’t necessarily equate with teaching them something. When I lecture on Kant, I don’t think I’m really entertaining my students. In my opinion, Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals doesn’t lend itself to entertainment; it’s a dense text that needs some serious explication. Now, I don’t speak in a monotone and I try to find relevant examples to help them make sense of the material, but I’m not standing in front of the class hoping that they’ll all have a great time; I’m standing there with the express purpose of teaching them about Kant.
And, in fact, I’m convinced that they’ve learned about the categorical imperative and about perfect and imperfect duties; they can thoughtfully write about these topics in their essays and convincingly answer questions about them on their exams. I could tell jokes or show a video, and then present a watered-down version of Kant’s theory; this would probably be easier for me. But I hold my students in fairly high regard and I believe they’re smart enough to know when they’re being entertained and when they’re being educated. If you want to learn about Kant, you don’t want to watch a video; and if you want to watch a video, you don’t really want to learn about Kant.
Do my students enjoy my classes? On balance, I think they do. I care about the material that I’m teaching and I care about whether or not students are learning it. That, I think, is why a lot of students like the classes I teach. Does this mean I’m entertaining them? Not necessarily. Liking something and being entertained by it aren’t always going to be the same thing.
A university isn’t Disneyland and professors aren’t Mickey Mouse.
You can have a ton of fun in a class that doesn’t challenge you or teach you anything, just like you can have a ton of fun at a theme park. But professors aren’t tasked with making sure you’re having a good time; we’re here to make sure you learn something.