In my opinion, Maud is an evil woman.

A few years back I rented a documentary about the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. It was perhaps the best introduction to teaching I ever saw. The film chronicled his year-long attempt to work up a new stand-up act. After his success on television, he just wanted to see if he still had it, so he began building up an act from scratch. He would write a few jokes every morning and then test them at various comedy clubs around the country. He wasn't even on the bill. He'd just walk on stage after all of the headliners and do five to ten minutes of the new material.

Watching the film I was struck by how similar his process was to teaching new texts or courses. Seinfeld would do a bit, it would work or bomb, and then he would start to tinker with it: change the timing, add an element that was not there before. Sometimes a joke just wouldn't work and he didn't know why. One he tried dozens of times. He thought it was great, but he could never get a laugh so he finally pitched it. Week after week he added and changed things until he had 20 minutes of good material, then 45 minutes. By year's end he could do a 90-minute set.

And that's not too dissimilar from my approach to teaching. It makes no difference how well I plan the assignments, schedule or syllabi. Until I've tried to teach something before live students, I don't have a clue whether it will work. Of course I'm trying to get people to think and Seinfeld is trying to get people to laugh, but it's the same process. I try stuff and then change the timing. I add an element and even reluctantly pitch out stuff I love but doesn't work. A course is never perfect; I'm always tweaking it. I hate to admit that there's a performative aspect to teaching, but there is. It's about 50 percent of the job.

Sometimes the devices used in comedy have a direct application. My 11:30 section of the senior seminar this semester is not a particularly talky group. A lot of the energy has to come from me, which is draining, but that's just the way it's going to be with this group. Now when you get a class like this, you need to constantly break the rhythm or you'll lose them. You have to resort to gimmicks (staged debates, instant polls, whatever--anything to change the dynamic). So yesterday I found myself using an old comedic tradition: the call back.

I start a lot of days with a poem, so I read them Stevie Smith's "Emily Writes Such a Good Letter." It's a droll little poem, written in the voice of an upper middle class British woman who is revealing more about her narrow-minded self than she realizes:

Yes, I remember Maurice very well
Fancy getting married at his age
She must be a fool

You knew May had moved?
Since Edward died she has been much alone.

It was cancer.

No, I know nothing of Maud
I never wish to hear her name again
In my opinion Maud
Is an evil woman...

After reading the poem, I said a few words about why I admired it. I like the way it employs pathos and dark humor. I also like how it uses prosaic and banal language, but twists it just enough to evoke the pretence and loneliness of the narrator's life. Then we turned to our discussion of The Crito. We had a reasonably good debate about what constituted justice and a citizen's moral obligation to his or her society. At certain points, however, when the discussion began to flag, I'd just stare into the middle distance, wait until everyone was looking at me, and, appropos of nothing, say, "In my opinion, Maud is an evil woman."

I did this about two or three times. It was amazing how it changed the dynamic in the room. It was like rapping the lectern and saying "wake up, pay attention," but in a more gentle way. As any good comedian knows, you can go to the call back too often. Less is more. Still, it worked. At least it did yesterday.


TXC said…
I'm very interested to hear your comments on the poem read by Elizabeth Alexander during the inauguration ceremony yesterday. Her delivery was not that strong, but a poem should not be judged on the basis of a particular reading.

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