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IN MY OPINION

To teach or to entertain, that is the question

Or, to quote Gord Downie, "I'm not going to do the dancing bear!"

By TERENCE MCLEAN | OCT 19 2018

The academic year is in full swing and, hopefully, teaching and learning are flourishing on campus. However, being a good teacher, professor, instructor – choose your handle – is not getting any easier. Many educators, especially those new to the classroom or lecture hall, may be facing the difficulty of balancing course content and maintaining student interest. This is where the dancing bear springs to mind. I thought of this after reading Tragically Hip band member Rob Baker’s comments in an interview after the passing of the group’s front man, Gord Downie. Baker described the lead singer’s struggle with performing (emphasis mine):

“The whole persona he developed on stage was stage fright. It’s not a natural thing to stand in front of an audience and bare your soul or to speak to a crowd of people. I guess it’s natural for some people. It’s not natural for most people. But, for Gord, I think it was hard. And I think every tour he would say, ‘I’m not going to do the dancing bear! I’m not going to do that anymore! I’m going to stand there and sing the songs!’ And as soon as he got out there in front of the crowd, like after about 20 seconds, it would just take over because he needed to do that.”

With this revelation, I was both moved and relieved: moved because I have respected Gord Downie since seeing The Hip in a wee shadowy club in Regina in 1988, and relieved because that is the way I feel at the beginning of every semester. I start out by telling myself that I am not going to resort to entertaining the throngs, but shortly after going through the course syllabus, my inner dancing bear jauntily emerges, especially in classes with young international students, many of whom are accustomed to passively listening to the sage on the stage.

I teach both international and domestic postsecondary students of English as an Additional Language (EAL) and have been at this game for quite a spell. I respect all students and believe that they deserve a teacher­­­­­ who is compassionate, competent and creative. Throw in a dash of motivation, gumption and the odd ripping yarn, and we get what is, in my view, a professional teacher worthy of the title.

Do I fall into this esteemed category? Well, I try. More importantly, I am keenly aware that it requires both upkeep and updates because the life of a teacher usually involves an unwanted dose of chaos. Regarding basic human desire for order, Harvard University’s Steven Pinker warns: “Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right.” So, good teachers require the ability to handle whatever the universe throws their way, including a reticent audience. This is when the odd jig can come in handy.

Pinpointing what constitutes good teaching presents a bit of a challenge. Ask different people and you will get different answers, especially on many university and college campuses these days. Of course, well-constructed syllabi and solid subject material can support good teaching, but what about the teacher? There’s the rub. Without the good teacher, the best laid plans can go awry. Good teaching requires a little more – and sometimes, like it or not, that little bit more requires a splash of pizazz.

Like it or not, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) may also come into play. Constructive criticism? Maybe. Popularity contest? Perhaps. Venting opportunity? Sure. Worthwhile? I will leave that one up to you, dear reader. The difficulty lies in what Mount Royal University psychology professor Bob Uttl (as cited on Inside Higher Ed in 2017) posed as the inescapable issue of SETs: just what is being measured, student satisfaction or teaching effectiveness? I would argue that more often than not student satisfaction wins out.

In a meta-analysis of faculty teaching effectiveness by Dr. Uttl et al, the authors note that it has been suggested that being on the lookout for positive evaluations can lead to grade inflation and work deflation. So, teachers who can use SET information to tailor difficulty and length of assignments might be better off because they may get higher evaluations. Alas, dancing bears are more aesthetically pleasing than research paper assignments and APA citation style.

Undeniably, regardless of the subject taught, good teaching is good teaching, and to some it comes easy. What a luxury. Unfortunately, without such innate ability, we ungifted souls need to work at it. Being a professional takes effort, and regular teachers like me have to strive a little harder to dazzle the room. Perfection on stage, which Gord Downie exemplified, is perhaps out of reach, but if it is any consolation, evolutionary biology professor emeritus Jerry Coyne clarified that “natural selection does not yield perfection – only improvements over what came before. It produces fitter, not the fittest.” So, we should all strive to be better, not necessarily the best.

Back to my original dilemma – to teach or to entertain – well, this is obviously an either/or fallacy. Surely, we can do both. The focus should be on course content and student success. Nevertheless, a little dancing, working the room and playing to the crowd now and then can facilitate the teaching and learning process.

Gord was ahead by a century. Thanks, Gord, I miss you.

Terence (Terry) McLean has been teaching English for 27 years. He currently teaches English as an Additional Language at MacEwan University in Edmonton.

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  1. David Kaufman / October 24, 2018 at 13:49

    I wonder why it’s necessary to continually use binary thinking and create two artificially opposite positions. Why can’t a good teacher teach AND entertain? Good teaching combined with rigorous learning activities will lead to high quality learning of the content and development of cognitive and social skills (e.g., teamwork). By enjoying the teaching and learning process through entertainment, students can also develop a positive attitude towards the subject. For some students, this will motivate them to continue studying in the discipline.
    Effective learning has cognitive, affective and social elements and, in my opinion, all three should be addressed in our courses.

  2. TheSessional / October 24, 2018 at 21:47

    Er, I can’t “choose my handle.”

    As a sessional, I am definitely NOT a “professor” at my institution (University of Alberta), and to choose to call myself that without being granted tenure would be disingenuous to students and would likely enrage some of my tenured colleagues who are actual Professors. Sadly, UAlberta does not even have a tenured teaching stream.

    I am not a “teacher”, as that “handle” goes to members of the provincial union who teach K-12. I can’t get the teacher discount at Staples because I am not a “teacher.”

    I guess that leaves “instructor”, even though I teach high-level courses at a comprehensive university; the only “instructions” I give my students is “Read the syllabus.”

    Let’s take care in the words we use.

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