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The Birthday Clown on the Life Raft

Are we entertainers or educators? This post explores the increasing value of entertainment in our social discourse and how that might change our approach to teaching.

Imagine this: In the aftermath of a terrible apocalyptic Cylon attack, the only people to survive are a ragtag band of college undergraduates. They’ve been given a “Life Raft” in which they can escape to a new planet and begin civilization again. They’ve assembled a group of faculty from a range of departments waiting to board, but there’s just one more seat left.  Which professor’s expertise would be most beneficial in this brave new world? Who should be saved?

Every year since 1998 the students at University of Montevallo in Alabama meet to hear members of the faculty argue for their spot in “The Life Raft Debate”. For many years, this debate has been an opportunity for undergraduates to hear academics answer a question that becomes more urgent as the financial cost of a college degree rises:  “What is the value of a Liberal Arts education? “  But in 2007, the debate turned sharply away from critical discourse and became a contest of showmanship that featured, among other things, a motorcycle entrance, an Elvis impersonator, and an epic poem about the exploits of a future female footballer.  Students laughed and applauded; they had a great time. But were they learning?

Each year of the Life Raft Debate a faculty member is assigned to play Devil’s Advocate and argue that none of the debating members should be taken aboard. That year the Devil’s Advocate was Jon Smith, an English professor, who made the evening’s single rational argument. He claimed that the students had brought these academics to foolishness and he made a stirring impromptu speech about the responsibility of students, and citizens, to support rational argument and debate.  There’s a fantastic radio piece by This American Life on the 2007 event here. There’s also a pretty insightful interview with Jon Smith, and he brings up an excellent point that in the current climate of discourse (political, academic, social) it’s pretty difficult to avoid the entertainment culture and because of this, it can be hard for us to know what engagement, what learning looks like.  I see this all the time as a faculty consultant, and I’ve experienced it in my own teaching.

When I was a teenager, I worked at a community theater as an actor in children’s shows. I was a Rag Doll, an Evil Step Sister, a Little Piggy, and before shows I hosted birthday parties, in character, for hoards of sugar-crazed ten year-olds. It was a situation that could easily go off the rails; if they were bored or disengaged for even a few seconds, their little eyes would drift, their feet would swing and kick beneath their chairs, and chaos would prevail.  My only goal was to keep their attention, keep them laughing and smiling. It was a little frantic, a little panicky, and the only way I knew how to approach a room full of squirmy strangers.  I felt the same way my first day as a GTF, standing behind the desk, grasping my sheaf of notes and minute-by-minute lesson plan, looking at thirty bleary- eyed, rumpled freshmen who I assumed were waiting for the opportunity to start texting.

It’s not uncommon for new teachers to think of themselves as entertainers, and to want their classes to be enjoyed by students. And it’s easy to mistake the kind of visual/aural feedback you might receive from entertained students (laughing, loud conversation, animated faces) as an indication that the class is going well.  But does it say much about what your students are learning?

In the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to recognize that expressions I once found troubling (silence, confusion, intense squinting) can also be indicators of a good class. And student complaints about “tough grading” on written assignments can turn, though the course of the term, into gratitude for deep and specific feedback.  We don’t always know what learning will look like; it may look like boredom, it may look like struggle. But there’s a tremendous value in having patience for that.

What about you? How do you approach the balance of entertainment and learning in your classroom?

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