Thursday, November 29, 2007

That's Edutainment

Edutainment: The act of addressing an audience with the dual intentions of having them enjoy themselves and leave with new knowledge, new questions, or a new way of looking at the world.

Thinking about my talk at the Grateful Dead conference in Amherst, my as of yet unoptioned manuscript Was It Morally Good For You, Too?: A How-To Guide For Ethics in Sex, Politics, and Other Dirty Words, and a performance I gave in my intro class yesterday with a couple of visiting high school guidance counselors, I realized that what I really strive to be is an edutainer.

Such a stance receives ridicule within the academy. It takes that which we do, something serious, and cheapens it. There is time for play and time for work and to treat work as play is to fail to be a serious teacher or serious scholar.

My response (in a tone dour enough for it to be deemed respectable) is that this argument equivocates upon the word "serious." One can be serious in the sense of being deeply committed to progress in one's field and in the teaching and training (two different tasks, I must stress) of students while resisting the call to be serious in the sense of having a heavy, staid air about oneself. Gravity is not necessarily antithetical to levity in the classroom. Thinking back, my favorite teachers, the ones I really learned the most from, were master edutainers.

Students learn for three reasons: love, fear, and utility. If students think that material will be useful and help them in the long run, they'll do the work. Similarly, if they have the sense that a class is really hard and needs the effort or else they don't have a chance of passing, they'll do what they need to do. But to get students really engaged, you need for them to be self-motivated, to have a sense that they really want to know this stuff for no reason other than they really want to know it.

And we all know this because at our best, that's us. We're teaching this stuff because we've chosen to dedicate our lives to it because we're the ultimate geeks who just think this stuff -- whatever it is we study -- is really, really cool. Why then are so many of us complete buzzkills in the classroom? Why are we so resistant to inspiring the love of a subject by associating it with a pleasurable time learning about it?

Is it a fear that fun will be confused with easy? If students have a good laugh during class time, do we really think they'll think you're a pushover? Of course, a bad grade on an early assignment enough to dispel that. Include jokes about how hard it is to do this sort of work and the message, "You can have fun and work hard at the same time" is quite simple to convey. So, then, what is it?

Is it an elitism where we don't want too many people interested, only the serious ones who love it for the right reasons? Or that the fun stuff is reserved for those who pass the initiation -- who successfully run the gauntlet of boring and still want in?

Is it laziness? It's just easier to phone it in and if the students weren't implicitly motivated to do the work, that was their fault not ours. I'm here to educate, not entertain. They are here to work, they should not need to be told why they are doing the work, they should just do it.

My biggest pet peeve as a student was being asked to learn something without it being explained why we were learning it. I don't mind doing the work, but I need a road map that tells me WHY I'm doing the work. Don't tell me, "Just do it, you'll see why in the end" -- I probably won't fully get it, no matter how smart I am. I'm not an idiot, but I'll fully admit I didn't understand much of the physics I had studied as an undergrad until I did my work in the history and philosophy of physics in grad school and after. That is a failing of the way we teach.

Students learn better if they have a structure on which to hang the new things they learn...and here's the punchline...building that structure means telling the stories, building the historical narrative around the study and those stories are incredibly entertaining. A funny story here, an unexpected twist there, a historical connection between two things students hadn't realized were deeply intertwined and suddenly they are at a place of deeper interaction. Edutainment makes for students who both are better equipped to really understand the material and who are more motivated to do the work needed to gain the knowledge.

And it's not only in the classroom that we need more edutainment. We need to find more Mr. Wizards and Carl Sagans. Students from the middle school classroom to college mention shows like Mythbusters and the Daily Show where they take away something from their entertainment. We don't need shark week to make science interesting, but we can engage and ramp up the theoretical content at the same time if we are smart and clever about it.

But what do we need to make this work? A farm system. We need a deep bench of professional edutainers. We need people across the academy who have great schticks and could be brought in on any topic. Build up the supply and then the demand will be there.

The problem, of course, is that the reward structure in higher education discourages edutainment -- even if it is what our students really want and need. So, the question then is how to go about changing the incentive system for professors to encourage edutainment? I'm not suggesting that everyone who teaches needs to be an edutainer anymore than one would suggest that everyone professor be a top-rate scholar, but in this line of work, we need more. How do we do it?