Misguided attempt at engaging students

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.


  1. garnetstar says

    I so agree. I’m so tired of the idea that “entertainment” is necessary for learning.

    There was a Simpsons episode that summed it up perfectly: the Simpsons went to visit a science museum, the sign outside of which read “We teach science with bright flashing lights!”

  2. MNb says

    “charismatic educators”
    My experience as a teacher maths and physics is that pupils (mine are 12-16 years old) want exactly the opposite: predictability. They want to know what they can expect and what’s expected from them. Surprises distract. Sure I tell a few nice stories (how to steal petrol from a car for instance; the standard counterjoke I receive is that they are going to try it and blame me when they are caught), demonstrate a few things, appeal to their imagination (when I tell them how a force can change the shape of their noses and pretend to hit a pupil or when I introduce potential energy by holding a board eraser above the head of a pupil) but everything is within a standard and safe framework.
    You want a spectacular intro of quantummechanics? Tell your students they are going to learn the principles of a nuclear bomb. When you get there (chain reaction), refer to it again. It suffices.

  3. Mr Ed says

    Maybe doing this with a minimalist approach works. My vibrations and waves professor started the semester by showing the silent video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. With bone dry narration he said, “this is not good,” and a second later as the bridge broke in to pieces “you would not want this on your resume.” Twenty five years later I remember it like it was yesterday

  4. ollie says

    Plus what the professor is saying is nonsense. True, QM violates our “common sense” intuition, but you sure as heck need to remember your calculus, differential equations and linear algebra to have a chance of doing well.

  5. Mano Singham says

    What your professor did was excellent teaching. He was showing a concrete example of the power of waves and creating interest in what was to come. It was not about HIM, it was about the content, and that is the way it should be.

  6. says

    I had a professor that was almost this crazy. But it wasn’t an act. He was losing it and regaining it every day in class. As an English professor specializing in modern and post-modern literature, it worked, too. He really hooked me into the academic life, and I’ve never been happier.

    Still, it wasn’t an act. He was crazy (“was,” we still keep in touch and he’s hit a much better rhythm for his life).

  7. Mano Singham says

    I think it makes a difference if it is not an act. It is when you try to be something you are not that the trouble begins.

  8. says

    The criticisms here about flamboyance seem really prudish to me, to the point of even appearing envious. Some of you are arguing about style without having much evidence of what the instructor finally accomplished at the end of the day (it’s only a 6-minute intro to a single lecture). Good teaching can be accomplished with and without flashiness. (I’m not saying he accomplished good teaching, though.) Beware of thinking that you’re a better person than a student who doesn’t find your field as exciting as you do. Is it the students’ responsibility to automatically enjoy your field and your style? Or is it instead your responsibility to do something to come out of the ivory tower and connect to the student somewhere nearer her own level? Every instructor can have a completely unique way of doing that. Sure, it’s frustrating that students aren’t like they used to be (they never has been!), but it’s unreasonable to be offended by boredom and short attention spans. It’s only fair to criticize flamboyance in the classroom if it’s counterproductive to learning. Which brings me to my own criticism… I do think the content of that instructor’s show was stupid (impaling a stuffed animal?) and obscene (nudity, the Twin Towers, and Hitler). And one comment here mentioned the ridiculousness of the instructor’s comments at the end. I think those points can be legitimately argued. But how can you categorically denounce flamboyance? Be sure that you criticize out of concern for the students and not because you feel personally threatened.

  9. says

    Oh, and to be fair to that instructor, I should add that I’ve tried a few stupid class demonstrations myself… in front of the camera, no less. I’ll admit that one risk in flamboyance is the potential to go too far.

  10. peter henry says

    I hope this machine takes my comment this time, I never know …
    Mano, it seems most of us leaving comments are teachers now (or at the very least, were students some time ago). I’m really interested in how I can better motivate my frustrated remedial math students, and I heartily agree that good teaching isn’t about the teacher, it’s about the students and how one can get them to engage at a deeper level and feel comfortable about taking chances and struggle. I think teaching is a performance, but for me, more like improv theater where one of my goals every class is to engage on a personal level with each student in class.

  11. says

    Feynman managed to explain quantum pretty well without the cirque de soleil show. Sure, he made it look easy but that was because he worked really hard at it (he probably put several Feynman-years into honing his explanations, which would be the equivalent of millenia of Marcus-years)

  12. garnetstar says

    It’s not that I think I’m a better person. It’s that entertainment doesn’t inspire more interest in the field or stimulate more learning of it. The students see entertainment as extraneous and get frustrated when they’re just being treated to eye candy instead of spending the time learning how to approach a subject that they mya find opaque.

  13. MMF says

    Hey! I’m a long-time lurker and ESL teacher. I’m very curious… What are your basic strategies for creating a good course? I’d love to read your perspective!

  14. Mano Singham says

    It is not easy to distill my ideas into a brief comment. Are you in a hurry? If not, I’ll write up a post about it and upload it in the near future.

  15. jamessweet says

    My reaction is pretty much summed up by this students’:

    “I wasn’t thinking about it in an offensive or non-offensive way. I was trying to figure out what was going on.”

    Yep 😀 I kinda feel like in a university setting, students should expect to have their sensibilities challenged, and I don’t think this lecture really pushes beyond the kind of provocation that college students should expect to encounter during their time there… but I have trouble understanding what his freaking point was. I don’t see this as scandalous, but I do see it as kinda… stupid. 🙂

    To be clear, in my time I had plenty of professors give lectures that were a complete fucking waste of time, they just weren’t a complete waste in such a newsworthy way. This is bizarre, but not anything to wring one’s hands over.

  16. jamessweet says

    Yeah, that was sort of my reaction (see below). The flamboyance doesn’t really bother me, but I agree that it kinda seems utterly pointless. I am about as incensed as I would be if somebody took a video of a really boring and pointless lecture. The teacher arguably wasted the students’ time and money, but beyond that I have trouble caring that much.

  17. says

    Yes, I agree that if a student is frustrated and not learning, something is wrong. I also agree that students do not like eye candy *instead* of learning time. But what’s wrong if there’s eye candy *and* quality learning? I’m not saying this particular instructor had both, but some instructors do. I disagree with the claim that “entertainment doesn’t inspire more interest in the field or stimulate more learning of it”. Yes, it’s not enough by itself. But entertainment can be a great ice-breaker for students who are intimidated or already dread a class before it starts. I know an instructor who plays electric guitar and throws water balloons to teach computer programming. The vast majority of his students claim that it keeps them engaged and enhances their memory of the material due to the novelty. Many say it improves their mood and concentration. In 10 years, only 2 students said it was a waste of their time. If it wastes 5% of the class time for perhaps 5% of the students, is that so bad?

  18. says

    Yes! Mano, why don’t you give equal criticism toward the non-flashy time-wasters? You know, the monotone droners and word-for-word slide-readers. (Too many hyphens?) Wouldn’t you say those teachers are much more prevalent and are probably hurting the reputations of teachers worse than shallow movie portrayals? I’m not saying they deserve public humiliation, but attacking only the flashy folks is one-sided.

  19. Mano Singham says

    But nobody considers the monotone droners, slide readers, etc. to be good teachers. What I am criticizing are what I consider misguided ideas about what constitutes good teaching.

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