Are Teachers Entertainers?

children-playing-250x249I’ve been following a discussion on LinkedIn in which one instructor has taken the position that teachers are entertainers because learning should be fun, and another is taking issue with him — he maybe agrees that learning should be fun, but he’s doubtful that teachers are entertainers. I think it wouldn’t hurt to consider how we use the words “fun” and “entertainment” when we think about classroom experiences and instructor’s roles.

We tend to say that we’re “entertained” by films, plays, concerts, stand-up comics, etc. Actors, comics, and musicians are entertainers. Being entertainers, they perform while we watch, and we enjoy what we’re watching. The important thing here is that when we’re being entertained, we’re passive. However, we have fun at the beach, the carnival, or when we’re playing games. When we’re having fun, we’re active. So by these definitions, whenever instructors are acting like entertainers, students are passive observers, but when students are having fun, they’re engaged — they’re doing something. So if instructors are entertainers, students aren’t having fun.

But to say that students should have fun in the classroom doesn’t seem quite right either: “fun” seems mindless (though it doesn’t have to be), and mindless isn’t what a college classroom should be. I think we should abandon the notion of fun altogether and adopt the idea of pleasure instead, so that we think about learning as an advanced form of pleasure. I’m drawing here from Book VII of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which he distinguishes carefully between the pleasures of the body and the pleasures of the soul:

Neither practical wisdom nor any state of being is impeded by the pleasure arising from it; it is foreign pleasures that impede, for the pleasures arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more.

There are pleasures that impede growth and pleasures that foster growth, and learning is one of the pleasures that foster growth. Aristotle calls these pleasures “natural.” They’re like eating. We eat so that we can live, and pleasure is a natural by-product of our eating, but not the purpose of eating. Learning is supposed to work the same way. We learn so that we can live and grow, and the natural by-product of learning is pleasure, but pleasure isn’t the purpose of learning. It’s just a by-product. When students truly learn, when a light comes on and they see something — maybe even the whole world — in ways that they haven’t before, those students experience a deep pleasure that makes them want to learn even more. As we learn, our ability to gain pleasure from learning grows with us.

Strategies for increasing the pleasure of learning:

  • “Big picture” teaching — teaching that relates the material to students’ own lived experiences, prior knowledge, and future lives.
  • Minimizing (though perhaps not eliminating) lectures and involving students in more activities: have them do something with the knowledge they acquire.
  • Problem solving activities are perhaps the best. Pose a problem for students to solve with the material at hand.

These strategies work, usually. Are they limited?  Of course — by reasonable class sizes, by the amount of instructor support, and by students’ prior learning experiences, which usually involve having all of the imagination and pleasures of learning beaten out of them by test preparation instruction — and by hours of mindless fun in front of a television set or playing a video game. But I’ve also seen students resistant to learning have their heads turned by these strategies.


On Blogging

hitsbinaryI’d like to start with some numbers. Up to last March I was averaging 1 hit per day. So far this May, I’m averaging 100 hits per day. I started up using in December of 2011. I wasn’t too committed to it at the time: I just wanted a place that I could use when I wanted it. From Dec. 2011-March of 2013 I had 718 hits, or about 45 a month, for a small handful of posts. Then in April I decided to get a bit more serious about blogging. I tried to post something every day. It wasn’t hard, because I didn’t always have to come up with brand new content. I’ve been publishing on the web off and on since the 1990s, so when I didn’t have new content to add I’d gather my previously published works and link to them from here (I didn’t want to just republish them here out of deference to my original publishers).

I also started using LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter as platforms to promote my blogging (I’d forgotten about my Tumblr page so I’m just starting to use that). LinkedIn is the main hub here — I’d find groups that fit my content, join the group, and then once I published a blog I’d post notice about it to my LinkedIn page and to the most interested groups (and no, I don’t just spam groups — I try to promote my content within group interests). As of May 17th, 2013, I have 2171 hits, or 1,756 in about a month and a half, or about 40 a day. So I went from about 45 hits a month to about 40 a day (1200 hits a month) just by promoting my blog on social media. But, WordPress data reveals that the real spike occurred after about a month of blogging: I averaged a bit more than a hit a day until this April, then about 15  hits a day in April, and now about 100 hits a day in May. LinkedIn and WordPress itself seems to be my biggest helps, at least going by WordPress’s own data.

Updated numbers:

Dec. 2011-March 2013: 718 hits, or about 45 a month, or about 1.5 per day.
April 2013: 462 hits, or 15.4 per day.
May 2013: 3412  hits, or 110 per day.
718 total hits at the end of March 2013, but surpassed the 5,000 hit mark on June 2nd, 2013.

I do my own image editing. I use Pixlr editor, a free app that you can install directly into your Google Chrome browser. It performs basic functions well. I have a tablet that I need to set up, but for now I’m just editing with my trackpad. I used it to create my logos and whatever other images with effects that you see on the site, such as my modifications to the cover of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations. I use Grab on my Mac to create new images like the one up above and then Pixl Editor to modify it as I have (the base image is a screenshot of my WordPress data). Going cheap with image editing software means a few steps (1. Grab image, save as .tiff file 2. Open in Preview, export as .jgp 3. Open in Pixlr Editor to edit), and it means having fewer tools, but if you’re just getting started, that’s a good way to go.

So — use social media. Use it considerately, though. Don’t just spam. Meet people at their areas of interest. I rarely post links to my blogs to any of the listservs to which I’m subscribed, at least not unless I have fairly rich content or specific information that I know will be of interest to the group. When I do post to listservs, though, I do get a spike in hits.

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