Each class session is a different performance. Whether the instructor is at the top of his or her form or feeling very low that day, a mask must come over him or her, and the show commences at the appointed class start time. From that point on, the good instructor transforms into an entertainer as well as a conveyor of academic information. Indeed, there can be little or no information learned that day unless the students maintain their interest in what is being taught to them. That’s where the performance comes in.
I always found that the injection of humor at times during the class period was a good way to maintain student interest. Sometimes students’ minds would wander, especially during classes scheduled immediately after lunch. The challenge for the instructor, in that event, is to bring student attention back from the reveries to which they had strayed.
Fortunately, humor comes relatively naturally to me, and I would inject puns and simple quips at various times during the lecture, whenever I detected that sleepiness was creeping into the eyes of some students, or, at other times when I just felt like it. This made the class fun for both me and for my students.
There was one episode that comes to my mind. The class was one on transport process design given to junior undergraduates and some graduate students. It was scheduled at 12:30 p.m., just after lunch for some, and before lunch for others. At one point, the material became rather esoteric and remote. Some in the class were with me, but some had started down the long road of incomprehension. It was then that Frank, a graduate student of mine who attended the class for credit, raised his hand to ask a question. Here is how the ensuing conversation went, to the best of my recollection:
Me: “Yes, Frank, do you have a question?”
Frank hesitates, trying to formulate his question.
Me: “Frank, were you going to ask me what the difference is between a musician and a 12-inch pizza?”
Frank: “Uh, no …”
Me: “The difference is that a 12-inch pizza can feed a family of four. Or were you going to ask what to call a musician without a girlfriend?”
Frank: “Mm …”
Me: “Well, if you were going to ask that question, you would call him ‘homeless.’ Or were you going to ask why the chicken crossed the road?”
Frank was by now speechless.
Me: “I’m sure it was to see poultry in motion. Frank, maybe you were going to ask what you would have when your pet rabbit was grumpy.”
Frank couldn’t answer.
Me: “You would have a bad hare day, Frank. Or maybe you were going to ask what to say with a snake in the garbage disposal.”
Frank was too busy laughing to ask his question.
Me: “You would probably say that it wouldn’t be long now. So, what question were you going to ask?”
Frank had given up at this point.
Me: “Frank, Frank, hurry up and ask your question. I’m running out of material.”
Frank was finally able to ask his question. But by now, all the students in the class were paying attention.