Wisdom and wit

What did the stand-up tell academics who want to give better lectures? It's no laughing matter - it's about performing in the moment, Tariq Tahir hears

May 29, 2008

For a while after he began performing as a stand-up comedian, Kevin McCarron was confused.

Although acknowledged by his fellow comic peers for his good gags, he was finding laughs hard to come by, a factor he attributed to his being a little older than the other new acts he shared the stage with.

Then the penny dropped. "It was nothing to do with ageism but everything to do with my training as an academic. I never told anyone I was an academic - I'm not stupid - but even someone who didn't know I was an academic would have known there was something wrong with me.

"I was absolutely committed to the script irrespective of how the material went down. Looking back at some of the scripts, they had semicolons in them - what was I thinking?"

As both an academic and a stand-up comedian, McCarron spends a lot of time in front of an audience, trying either to make them laugh or to enthuse them about literature. He is, therefore, uniquely placed to assess academics' success - or lack thereof - in holding the attention of their students.

McCarron regularly holds staff development seminars exploring the way that teachers in higher education can learn from the techniques employed by stand-up comedians, most recently at the School of Oriental and African Studies in an event organised by the Higher Education Academy.

His message, to the 30 or so academics gathered to hear him, was clear. It's not about what can be often ill-advised attempts by lecturers at being funny, but rather about using the interaction between "performer" and student as a powerful pedagogic tool.

McCarron argues that for academics to become better teachers, they must draw a line between the written and spoken word and leave the crutch of preparation at the door of the seminar room or lecture hall.

For that to happen, they need to suppress their scholarly instincts, however hard they might find it to do.

"Roland Barthes, typically of academics, thought in essence that text is more important than speech - indeed, academics have to think that - and all he could say in favour of speech was that it's 'merely quick'.

"The point I make is that there is nothing 'merely' about quick - in a comedy club it's everything, and in a seminar it should be a lot more than it is now. Barthes seems to think that speech is ephemeral, trivial and inconsequential, and its only virtue is speed," McCarron says.

"I would like to see the seminar as a place where speed is easily the equal of depth. Because academics are asked to be both

scholars and teachers, which are radically different activities, what they tend to do is bring the habits of scholarship into the seminar room.

"Scholarship requires depth and slowness of thought, whereas the seminar, which is a live verbal environment, needs speed of thought. But academics aren't getting any training in speed, and so what they do is bring in the book and remorselessly insist on the text."

The result, McCarron argues, is often a sterile environment in which academics "advance like tanks" guided by a mound of notes, painstakingly assembled late into the night.

"If we don't put ourselves under pressure, nothing interesting or exciting is going to happen. How could it? In fact, what we've done is spent three hours the previous night making sure that it doesn't happen.

"Then we have the gall to offer these hours of preparation as morally sound. Self-protection is being offered to the world as a moral value. That preparation has been done to protect the teacher from the students. Teachers spend hours and hours preparing because they are terrified of bring caught out."

As well as being a reader in American literature at Roehampton University, McCarron is co-promoter and co-director of the Laughing Horse Comedy Club. He performs regularly around the country as well as undertaking the annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Festival.

For the academics gathered at Soas, McCarron introduced a number of simple methods gleaned from ten years performing in the bear pits of stand-up comedy.

"They are things that I've learnt on the comedy circuit and that require no performing skills whatsoever," he told them.

The first, and perhaps most basic, is to be visible to the students you are teaching. The effect of this is not only to provide a visual focus but also to capture those elusive improvised moments comedians crave.

"It's called stand-up comedy and since I've been doing it I've never sat down to teach. It gives them (students) something to look at, at the very least. While I did it to keep them alert, I realised it might have a more profound effect, which is to keep me away from any scheme or plan that I might have.

"Then you will find yourself doing something more interesting. The problem with writing something down in advance and then offering it back is that nothing unusual, unexpected or inspiring happens."

Rousing students from their apathy and getting them to engage with their teacher can be achieved with another tried and tested comedic approach.

"Comedians have a technique called voicing the audience's thoughts. Most comedians use it if there's anything physically striking about them. For instance Donald Mack, who's a 20-stone Jamaican comedian, comes on and says 'I know what you're thinking - if I'm up here, who's doing the door?'

"Now, if you're a teacher and you ask, 'What did you make of Middlemarch?', they won't give you anything. But what if you say, 'I know what you're thinking - another tedious novel written by a middle-aged woman with too much time on her hands'?

"Now you see the predicament they're in - either they have to own that interpretation or they have to resist. The more brutal you make 'their' interpretation, the more likely it is they will fight back."

But McCarron offers a stern warning to any academic who fancies himself as a bit of a wag. "A lot of people would be well advised not to try to be funny, and I'm not reliant on humour in my own teaching. The older you get, the more detached you get from younger people's humour, their rhythms and cultural references, and it's pitiful watching an older person try to be funny with younger people."

One academic attending the Soas event, Meena Kotecha, a guest teacher of mathematics and statistics at the London School of Economics, was taken by what McCarron had to say.

"He certainly demonstrated that it is possible to maintain interest if the lecturer is spontaneous and original. I could not agree more with his views on over-preparation for lectures and seminars and how it makes lectures boring.

"I'm always looking for good ideas to make classes interactive, and his suggestions are very good - using anecdotes, being spontaneous and most importantly being as passionate as Kevin is about one's subject area," Kotecha says.

"To make mathematics and statistics interesting is a bit of a challenge, and you are limited by the syllabus requirements. The other problem is caused by the preconceived notions of apprehensive students. I will definitely use Kevin's ideas to make my classes interesting, lively and interactive."

While McCarron could safely be described as an enemy of the PowerPoint presentation and all it stands for, Oliver Double, a senior lecturer in drama and theatre studies at the University of Kent and former professional comedian, believes the much-maligned presentational tool has a role.

He points to its use by comedian Dave Gorman, whose show Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure tells his story through a series of PowerPoint slides.

"With stand-up comedy you tend not to have a verbatim script, so most people have a vague idea (of what they are going to say) in their head or use a series of bullet points. It's the same with PowerPoint - each slide acts in a way like your stand-up comedy bullet point list," Double says.

"I know people think of PowerPoint as being a dull thing used to give business presentations. But the way I use it, it's much more of a cue for me to make points to spin off on."

Double believes that some academics are stubbornly resistant to the idea that lectures should be appealing to students.

"There's a suspicion among lecturers of trying to make lectures entertaining, and a feeling that the students should come to you as it were. Part of that is a slight resentment of lecturers who have a natural aptitude for it and who are therefore popular with students. There's this (disdainful) view of 'well, they please the students'."

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