teachers, not entertainers

One of the things that I have valued most about my graduate education has been the level of attention my programs and instructors have brought to my own teaching. At both my MA institution and at the doctoral level, I’ve been part of programs and departments that take graduate teaching of undergraduates very seriously, and that have invested real resources in teaching graduate students like me to be better teachers ourselves. I can’t speak rigorously about other programs, but the professors and departments I’m familiar with have always treated graduate teaching as matters of great personal and professional responsibility, contrary to the stereotype about uninterested faculty.

Part of this training is participation in mentor groups with other graduate TAs, where we discuss syllabuses and assignments, share successes and failures, and generally support each other in the work of teaching. It’s been a great help to me not only as an instructor but as a researcher, too. Almost all of my peers in these groups have been very enthusiastic and dedicated, and I’ve had the pleasure of observing the classes of other TAs a half dozen times, always coming away impressed. One aspect of this teacher training that always worries me, though, is the common notion among graduate instructors that their pedagogy has to be entertaining. Often, my peers have expressed great anxiety that their students aren’t sufficiently entertained, and have spoken as if a lack of entertainment value is in and of itself reason to change a lesson plan. I get it; it’s hard not to want to entertain people you’re teaching, in any situation, and given that part of the graduate experience is the tacit, mutual understanding that the undergrads you teach have more power in the institution than you do, it’s an understandable desire. But I find it disturbing, because learning is not principally or even majorly a matter of being entertained, and there are many things that you have to understand in life that aren’t fun to learn.

Of course, I would also be disturbed if I thought that my teaching was never entertaining, and I work hard to make my pedagogy engaging and interesting. But those have to be orthogonal to the essential question of whether I think my teaching is effective.

At its worst, the notion that teaching always has to be entertaining is of a piece with the broader sense in which education has become yet another service industry, where students are actually customers, teachers are servants, and the only ultimate goal is to leave the customer satisfied– which is totally contrary to the historical and philosophical purpose of teaching, which is to help others improve themselves, most certainly including in areas they don’t particularly have interest in. You give up that commitment and you should simply stop educating.

This is not a “kids these days” type of argument. To whatever degree they feel entitled to be entertained all the time, it’s a product of economic and cultural forces that are not of their own making. I have far more blame for capitalism, neoliberalism, college administrators, and parents than I do the students. But at the heart of it, there’s the necessary defense of learning as a kind of work, a kind of intellectual work that can and should be entertaining at times but will also involve a lot of thankless grinds and drudgery. That’s life.

I mention this after reading this post by Alan Jacobs, reacting to this unfortunate piece by Robert Talbert on laptops in the classroom. As Alan alludes, the idea that good teaching is always necessarily going to be more entertaining than whatever is on a student’s laptop seems, well, nuts. It would be great if that were true, but the world isn’t laid out that way. Trust me, often when I’m teaching, say, techniques for producing voiced interdental fricatives, I’d rather be shooting zombies on my computer. But there’s necessary work to be done. I’m reminded again of a friend who’s a mathematician who has told me that academic mathematics tends to be taught in a very traditional, analog way, with tons of old-fashioned professor talking at the whiteboard-style pedagogy. Because when it comes to that purest of the pure sciences, there’s a no-bullshit need to grasp the concepts, and the concepts are complex and not easily reducible, and you either sink or swim. Maybe it would be better if it weren’t that way, but it is that way. So that’s how they tend to do it.

This is what I was getting at with my post about difficult reading: not everything necessary or good in life is easy, and though everything in your culture militates against it, you are likely to find yourself a more fulfilled person if you are willing to forgo  convenience and entertainment for rigor and work. Sometimes!


  1. Some learning does involve ‘drudgery’ (eg, memorization) but those are the areas where teachers are least useful, I think.

    Just don’t want you to conflate ‘rigor and work ‘ with ‘drudgery.’ Some intellectual work (the kind where teachers are most important) is both difficult and rigorous and pleasurable.

  2. I’m in the pro-laptop camp, not because I think my class is more entertaining than the internet but because I’ve been writing computer tutorials and assigning them as in-class activities for 25 years. I can’t believe it took me until last year to realize I could also answer student questions with ‘who’s going to look that up?’ which is very appropriate to the fast-moving field of medicine.

    I have the great advantage, though, of teaching required courses in which it’s easy to relate everything I have the students do to their career goals. My courses also have the reputation of being killers, so nobody comes there thinking they will be entertained. That’s an advantage that only experience can give you, as you have to be around a while to develop that reputation.

    Bottom line: no blanket recommendation will apply to all courses, or even to all sections of the same course. Except ‘always have an alternative method up your sleeve in case the first one doesn’t work’ — for which I find computers in the classroom really useful.

  3. Ok, but what makes for a more effective teacher. Forget about your ideal of what a student should be, is it more effective to be entertaining?

    1. Sometimes, I’m sure, and in that case it’s best to be entertaining. I’m resisting the idea that what’s entertaining is always what’s effective and vice versa.

  4. Didn’t Longinous say art is that which entertains & instructs? Or words to that effect? Doesn’t this apply to teaching too? Pbm is, how do we define “entertainment”? Aristotle disdains the “special effects” part of the drama—and that’s entertainment!— because the whole point of the drama is the action. But still, the action has to be both entertaining and instructive to meet Longinous’s definition.

    So I think when you criticize the tendency to entertain students, you’re only looking at the “special effects” of the class, not the main point, ie, whatever it is you’re teaching. “Fun” is not the same as “entertaining.” When you say, “engaging & interesting”, I think that’s closer to Longinious’s “entertainment” than “fun”. I think teaching has to be entertaining in the Longinous sense and the “fun” is like special effects in a movie. It may awe you momentarily but leaves you with nothing. We all know that the moment a “fun” movie (ie, a special-effects driven movie) ends we forget all about it and a month later don’t even remember seeing it.

    By the way, when I learned about “techniques for producing voiced interdental fricatives” all the professor had in the way of special effects was chalk, a chalkboard and his hand to mimic the tongue’s movements, etc etc. Today’s computer-generated animations of the vocal apparatus would have made it a lot easier.

  5. I don’t know if we fundamentally disagree, but I don’t share your hesitation.

    To caveat everything that follows: I have zero experience teaching a liberal arts curriculum in a classroom environment. However, I have about eight years of experience of teaching (on and off, never as the sole instructor) martial arts to adults. So my thoughts on pedagogy may be colored by that.

    That said:

    Of course, I would also be disturbed if I thought that my teaching was never entertaining, and I work hard to make my pedagogy engaging and interesting. But those have to be orthogonal to the essential question of whether I think my teaching is effective.

    I do disagree with this. I think being entertaining – sub “engaging” if that’s a less objectionable term – is a necessary requirement of good instruction.

    My experience is solely in teaching adults: we have maybe two or three students below 18 in our school of 120+, and they are rare exceptions. Median age across the school is early 30s. These are working adults who have day jobs, spouses, children, health issues – that is to say, plenty of compelling reason not to enroll in a martial art. So it’s safe to say no one shows up because they feel obligated. Everyone puts down the $(modest but not negligible) per month because they want access to whatever it is they see martial arts as providing: confidence, fitness, variety, and so forth. Everyone who’s there wants to be.

    I can assure you, from experience, that if I don’t make my presentations as engaging as possible, I will lose the students’ focus. Engaging, in addition to the usual points about speaking so you can be heard, means:

    * Avoiding jargon and pomposity while also not being condescending;
    * Punctuating key points of a technique with memorable turns of phrase
    * Interjecting occasional bits of humor
    * Varying the volume, tone, and speed of my delivery as needed for emphasis

    And this is for material like how to throw someone twice your size! You’d think this wouldn’t need much hustle to get it to stick. And yet.

    (The instructional certification process at our school reflects this, by the way – we spend about 75% of the certification course learning how to be effective speakers and teachers; 25% reviewing the techniques that we’ll be teaching)

    The reason we focus so hard on being engaging is, simply, because we’re trying to impart something that’s not intuitively obvious into another person’s mind. Repetition is part of that – every martial arts student knows the necessity of drilling – but a student who repeats something they learned incorrectly hasn’t merely wasted their time; they’ve ingrained something that will need to be corrected.

    The inherent value of the subject matter – self-defense in my case; writing in yours – doesn’t make the means of presentation inherently compelling. Art has to be employed to that end, and I’m fine with calling that art “entertainment.”

    Roque Nuevo’s point above about “entertaining” in the sense Longinous used it covers everything else I might say.

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