Columbia physics professor Emlyn Hughes was assigned to teach a course on quantum mechanics to undergraduates. His first class was bizarre, to put it mildly. This is what happened in the first five minutes.
Students were bombarded with projected images of the collapsing Twin Towers and Nazi Germany as Hughes stripped down to his underwear and rap music played.
The whole incident was caught on camera and later posted on the student website Bwog.
During the five minute display, two people dressed as Ninjas blind-folded two stuffed animals and then impaled one with a sword.
After, Hughes explained to the class that they would have to “strip raw” and “erase all the garbage” from their brains to properly learn quantum mechanics.
You can see for yourself.
The university is supposedly investigating Hughes’s behavior.
I blame the many, many films about charismatic educators for this kind of thing. In those films, teachers inspire students by being performers and doing wacky, unusual things and being larger than life characters, and some teachers think that this is what it takes and try to become entertainers.
They are wrong. These films give a highly misleading impression of what makes for good teaching. Novelty for novelty’s sake can get old very fast. Furthermore, academics tend to be somewhat introverted and bookish. We did not go into academia because our first choice of careers as stand-up comedians didn’t pan out. We have simply not put in the hours necessary to learn the skills of being good public performers and trying to be one day in and day out is next to impossible. I can give a fairly entertaining public lecture on occasion but I could never keep it up three days a week for fifteen weeks to the same audience. I challenge any entertainer to be able to do that successfully.
But even if we could do it, it would not help. What the research indicates is that to engage and motivate students to learn, you need careful planning to make the content interesting, have students interact with themselves and the instructor, give them some choice and autonomy and control over the curriculum, and provide frequent formative feedback about their progress. In other words, teachers need to shift the focus away from what the teacher does to what the students are doing.
This is what I tell the faculty at my university in my role as the director of the teaching center. There are many practical things that any teacher can do that can make their class interesting. These do not require a personality transplant, just a willingness to learn some basic strategies about how to create a good course.