Thinking about pedagogy, comedy, freedom and change. Also incorporating a mini-review of Laura Davis’ Ghost Machine show.
Preface: I occasionally develop obsessive interests. I actually seem to accumulate them, but that’s another blog post. Of late this has taken the form of listening to the Comedian’s Comedian podcast – and one of its many virtues is that when people say “I think this might sound really pretentious, but…” the host, Stuart Goldsmith, is always “bring it on, this is the place for it.” I like that. I’ve no time for being ashamed of finding ways of making actual sense of this tortuous and joyous business of being alive. Nonetheless, be warned that even for an over-qualified philosopher the following may have taken the ‘bring it on…’ approach to heart.
In this post, I want to speculate on the idea of what we can learn by reflecting on a possible relationship between lecturing and stand-up comedy. This is a less simple parallel than you might imagine. Doesn’t the idea of a teacher as stand-up veer to close too a ‘look at me’ pedagogy, that recent educational thinkers would have us avoid? Aren’t we meant to be moving our pedagogy away from the teacher at the front, and decentring the tutor in favour of more horizontal pedagogical power relations? Possibly, but first I want to talk about how I came to write this post, and about freedom.
Radical human freedom is a belief from my youth, accidentally acquired from existentialism during my undergraduate so-called studies, that I am determined to hold onto. I have chosen to hold firm to the idea that we can have at least some influence over who we are. Anything else is, whether the case for it is persuasive or not, unacceptable. I have had my fill of being told ‘free will is a necessary fiction’. If it is necessary, and the speaker has any sense of what actual necessity really entails, they’d know that their speech-act is redundant and we have nought to do but get on with living in this alleged fictive realm. Whatever. We are either free, or have to act as though we are anyway. I’ll opt for the former, and if pressed would cite Nietzsche’s Beyond Good & Evil, where in the fourth paragraph he says we might judge beliefs not by their truth, but the extent to which they are ‘life preserving’.+ Of these two options, believing we are free seems to be the life-affirming selection.
Having established my belief that we are free to shape who we are, albeit within the dreaded confines of what Simone De Beauvoir calls ‘facticity’ (see her, frankly breath-taking, 1947 book The Ethics of Ambiguity. Partly for facticity – but mostly just because you should), you might wonder ‘so what Dave?’. My point here is that I don’t think we should fall prey to deterministic, fatalistic accounts of what happens to us as we develop, or as crueller people put it, age. It is not inevitable that our politics drift rightwards in middle-age, or that we cease to be able to use remote controls, or are so impressed by free pens that we take out appallingly ill-advised pension/funeral plans. The former of this may be due to possibly having accumulated assets to protect, or fears about security, that potentially make such a drift something we are pushed towards. But it is not inevitable. Otherwise we are not free. And as I am not going to go into again – we bloody are free.
I have gone to such lengths to reach this point because I want to engage with such a drift, and my attempts to resist it. The drift is, I think, encouraged by the immense power of habit, repetition and also learning ‘what works’ in our dialogical interactions and sartorial practices, so that we can easily become what is best described as a caricature of ourselves. If a look works for me, or a certain way of overcoming my anxiety and conversing with strangers at a conference does, or I fall into a work role where I and others seem comfortable and know what to expect – there is a possible drift. A drift into being that person. To let the tactic replace the strategy, as they ‘d say on LinkedIn (not that it’d make any sense, but it’s LinkedIn, where all sense is replaced by a chillingly benign rendition of neoliberalism as relentless empty positivity). Or the person to collapse into the performance, somehow. I think such drifts are possible partly because although there is no fixed element to the self (the Buddhist idea of anatta is pretty close to the view I would argue for here), we tend to retain coherence of character via repeated acts, which reinforce habituated tendencies in our personalities. We might tell ourselves fictions of our stability and choose to overly reinforce the elements we see as stable, rather than deal with the unpleasant realities of change, and this largely unquestioned, half-seen if at all, process is what might lie behind this idea of turning into a caricature of oneself over time.
My concern about this relates to my having provisionally tried out points of view – to see if I hold them, or how others react – and them then sliding over time, unobserved and without proper reflection, into ‘what I actually think’. These are like mini-performances one might fall into. Little paragraphs that make your interlocutors nod as though you are speaking great wisdom. Intoxicating and hard to resist repeating.
With this in mind, I have sometimes mentioned in conversation the idea that stand-up comedy is the closest possible profession to that of the lecturer. You have to stand in front of people, often with limited props, and deliver a linear(ish) account, keeping the attention of an audience. I may have included in this parallel things about how lecturers might do well to study the practice of those who can walk out in front of a huge audience and – seemingly just by talking – get people to, through the dramatic conventions of expectation and role, be taken through conversations about politics, human foibles, sadness, joy and elements of our shared human condition (even the observational “hey, so what is the deal with [high stools in cafes / over familiar in-train catering announcers / this hot weather / etc]?” leverages our discomfort with change, and our own only partial awareness of it till pointed out). You can probably see the potential in such a view. What is dangerously close to a micro-routine really.
There are those comics who have already noted this, and done routines in the style of corporate Powerpoints, and plenty of lecturers who (a little too close to The Office’s Ricky Gervais line of “I think of myself as an entertainer”) always work for laughs. The Dave channel is launching a show ‘in which comedians deliver stand-up in the guise of a lecture’, and the commisoning editor Joe McVey is quoted on Chortle saying: ‘I once had to give an hour-long lecture on triangles, and it was really dull. Why didn’t I just get a comedian to write it for me? It all seems so obvious now. #piechartsrule.’ ‘Corporate comedians’ advise business people on PowerPoint use. Anyone who has seen me teach will have seen why I might be attracted to such ideas. This is where the danger of drift is. With my career being more about pedagogy then philosophy these days, sort of, I started to actually resist this drift. This career move was incremental and was partly about me following the interest I had in the mechanics of the classes I gave: what seemed to work, and what didn’t; alongside this I become disenchanted with academic publishing and the drive to ever more abstract specialism in some Buddhist studies/Philosophy. As part of this slow meander from the overly theoretical to the applied, I also began to develop a more reflective approach to my professional work (notable that I only start being properly reflective once I have less to do with actual professional philosophy!).
I found myself, at some conference drinks reception I imagine, trying to sound interesting, delivering this micro-routine to a few other attendees over the wine and business cards. And as I said it, I had one of this little moments of disassociation that I am sure other people must have, because humans are pretty much all the same, surely. I thought “who is this bloke, running out this line? Does he even believe a word of it?” I didn’t actually know. It was like a mini-epiphany amidst the canapes and complimentary pens. I said it because of the way it went down. It worked as a little performance, but my awareness of not knowing whether I actually went along with the things I was spouting rather drew me up short. What did I actually think?
Was I talking rubbish? I thought about this over the next few weeks. I reflected on how to catch my sense of self and stop it collapsing into the sun of safely effective, if only moderately so, rhetorical patterns. Just in time perhaps. Some professional colleagues might have been putting up with it for years and think it a long overdue revelation that everyone except me is aware of. Again with the whatever. I am free to not be that caricature. But I also reflected on whether the line I was taking was worth believing or not. Was it actually true?
I want to now return to my opening worries that an idea of the tutor as a stand-up overly plays into outdated teaching methods I dislike (it sounds wrong in the mouth, if that makes sense without distracting us into a catalogue of other things that also seem so) the phrase, but ‘sage on the stage’ is often used by those in educational theory. In a pejorative way. The idea of one person (me!) with a microphone and 10000 in audience may suit my ego, but not contemporary pedagogy? If, by the way, you want the inside of your mouth to feel extra-wrong (and who doesn’t want that?), I could complete the above phrase to the title of a much-read and admired 1993 article by Alison King: From the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.
Now go and wash your mouth out.
Ignoring the title’s grammatical abhorrence (maybe it is only me that feels this way?), she makes a compelling closing argument:
Cooperative and collaborative learning also have positive effects on self-concept, race relations, acceptance of handicapped students, and enjoyment of school (Slavin 1990). Engaging our students in such active learning experiences helps them to think for themselves to move away from the reproduction of knowledge toward the production of knowledge and helps them become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers so that they can deal effectively with the challenges of the twenty-first century.*
I would advise people to read the piece themselves, to assess whether I deal fairly with it, but I want to be a bit difficult about it. Maybe there are points in the advancement of things like educational practice where you need overstate your case in order to have an impact, and having an impact here matters. 26 years after the piece, there is a lot of poor teaching in Higher Education and it is a noble undertaking to try and make this better.** Nonetheless, I think the piece tends towards bifurcation. That is, I think the contrast between the on-stage teacher, and the at-the-side-helping teacher, is not that simple. I have written about the ‘death of the lecture’ stuff before, and there are still large audience lectures in Universities, but there is more to it than lectures versus group-based project work. Both of these have a directive component from the lecturer, and require some form of planning, objectives and curation.
Just last week somebody said to me, as they often seem to: The lecture was redundant as soon as the printing press was invented. I guess certain lectures might have been. This might not prompt us to demolish lecture theatres though, but pause and think what do we actually want from teaching? My experience is that there is something of the ‘live experience’ that should add to the extent that learning happens, and make the content, and the way we are being encouraged as learners to ‘get it’ that enhances what mere catalogue of facts we might derive in other forms. Or why even have face-to-face sessions, rather than just textbooks/YouTube? Students deserve a lively responsiveness and nuanced response from the tutor. Damn. They need to read the room.
Moreover, much comedy, and lots of teaching doesn’t take place in arenas, or huge lecture theatres, but in small rooms where the performer emphasises some material, skips over other sections, and responds. Last night, in a board game café in Sheffield, a medical school learning technologist told me that they had just decided to build a 300-person lecture theatre (as their current facilities were too small). Medical learning is often cited as the sense-check moment for learning (“would you feel confident is your heart surgeon hadn’t passed actual exams?” etc), and yet here even a technology professional was happy to note, when I pushed them on why not just record it on video in a smaller room, that there was something about ‘attending the actual live event’ that made a vital difference to the student, but also noted the way that the teacher (“if they are any damn good, of course” they added) was affected by the interaction with the presence and responses, even en masse, of other humans.
Surely what both comedians and tutors do is give a sense that the audience and they are on a shared journey somehow. A sense of, and I warned you this might get over-the-line pretentiousness wise, a collaborative exploration. We suspend disbelief that the teacher/comedian has been on this journey before and knows what lies ahead. For me, I often end up in a slightly different destination anyway when I teach, or get there via a slightly different rhetorical route. To murder Heraclitus – you never give the same class twice.
To try and make sense of this, I want to talk about a comedy show I went to recently. I have only been to the occasional show over the last few years; Stuart Lee, Bill Bailey, Marcus Brigstock and such big (male) names. However, since starting to listen to the aforementioned podcast while exercising (friends will know my slightly troubling obsession in that regard), I have become preoccupied with the idea that quite a few of the show’s guests have explored about how you can use the comedy frame, or structure, or set of dramatic and sociological conventions, to discuss pretty much anything, including some pretty serious material. This is not news. Jesters have long been reminders of the absurdity of human endeavour in the face of our almost immediate obliteration and the end of all our preposterous hopes (cf. human thought passim, my favourite version here). Nonetheless, I fell into thinking about how this actually seems to work. I listened to the episode with Laura Davis, about her show Ghost Machine, and she talked about mixing her approach of actual jokes with speculation about physics and the point of being alive. I mused on the conversation as I sweated around Waltham Forest on a morning run. In an incident of digital serendipity (or fate, whatever, I’ve spent 25 years teaching philosophy, it’s not like I can even pretend the difference matters) the Comedians’ Comedian Facebook group indicated that Laura Davis was performing the Ghost Machine the following week, and at the Soho Theatre (about 15 minutes’ walk from work). As either a pawn of destiny, or free agent of rational, game-theory market choice (again, it’s not like there is an actual difference), I bought a ticket, and was primed to sit on the back row like a UN peace treaty observer.
Even the smaller comedy shows I had been to in previous years had been in fairly large rooms, with a back row allowing plenty of human shields between me and the performer. I shuffled up the stairs to a room on the top floor of the Soho theatre, taking in with demographic interest that the audience for this show was mostly people In their 20s and 30s, who had willingly given up a weeknight on the sofa in order to attend a show whose blurb promised ‘existential crisis’. As we entered the room, it was clear that being on the third row was as far back as the room went. Not much scope for the collateral damage of strangers protecting me from potential audience interaction. The ceiling is low, and the word that I guess estate agents might opt for is ‘intimate’. More evidence that this is not a mere witnessing-from-a-distance type thing is the ghost. Well. Ghost more by narrative convention than dread fear of the unknown. A woman in a sheet, with eye holes, which seems to also have fairly lights beneath it, is welcoming people by sort of flapping her arms like a moth to a pop playlist on an iPod/phone which she keeps returning to, in order to skip to whatever track seems to suit her paranormal flapping mood. This is good natured. Fun even.
The doors close.
We are warned that this might not all be straightforward fun. Though this message of the impending psychological ravaging of our sense of human purpose is then undercut by the ghost needing a drink of water, and having to negotiate an eye-hole in the sheet to achieve rehydration. This raises a fair bit of mirth. This is, on reflection, an element she must have used in the many prior performances of this show. It works really nicely, the slightly afraid audience gets some relief, and Laura Davis can shrug and do a line about how that might be the easiest and biggest laugh she ends up getting tonight (guaranteeing a laugh every time she drinks for the next hour). It might be the easiest laugh of the performance, but is far from the biggest. She is impressive. There are threads that permeate the routine. Call-backs to what had seemed like throwaway ad hoc improvisations, and a blend of antipodean earthiness^, physics and really quite gentle and vulnerable psychological reflection. I even got involved in answering a question^^, and even laughed actual out loud, when normally I only type ‘lol’ in silence.
If I am an expert in anything, it certainly isn’t comedy, so I won’t offer an extended review, but I want to concentrate on a tiny segment of the show. This portion managed to address a serious philosophical concern, in minutes, with a kind of dancing and parody. It is a core of the conceptual development in the show. Given that we are just made of cells, made of molecules, made of atoms which turn out to be ‘literally nothing, but nothing moving really fast’, as Davis says, we are just nothing. Given that we are nothing does anything even matter? She has an element of the show, between jokes about sea creatures as vaginal hygiene products and drinking water through her eye again (which seemingly never gets old), where she asks the audience why they don’t just kill themselves? I mean, nothing matters does it? It is a contemporary comedic performance of Albert Camus’ question that opens the Myth of Sisyphus:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer$
Davis states that there are those who take this version of nothing matters, and go around saying it. I guess we’d call them nihilists (though that makes me think of The Big Lebowski nihilists, ageing me a bit). She goes on to talk about the ways we find meaning in a finite world, and she recounts finding it in some surprising locations, and that such a sense of meaning is possible, leaving her audience feeling more upbeat than they might have feared would be the case when those doors closed. But it is the dismissal or lazy nihilism that I was really caught by. There was this account of people who use ‘nothing matters’ as a way of showing an alleged intellectual superiority, even though they don’t kill themselves, but instead go round saying it instead. She danced side-to-side under the sheet, and sing-songed (and I may misremember the exact wording) “ooh look at me, nothing matters, nothing matters”. In those few seconds it felt like a piece of awesome pedagogic performativity. What I have I have taken minutes (if not hours, I talk fast when I teach) to try and dismiss or problematize, was dealt a devastating blow and shown up for the self-regarding performance it really is. In seconds. With jokes, and fairy lights.
It might be worth noting that the ‘nothing matters, yeah’ crowd here shown up as mere wannabe nihilists, and not even pound-shop existentialists, are overlapping in conceptual demographic with the ‘necessary fiction – so laughable that you think you’re free’, philosophy-bro’ circle in the Venn diagram of reasons why philosophy is a trash discipline (with some pretty awesome exceptions, obviously). Laura Davis is a better existentialist then all of them, partly because she actually gets interested in how we might imagine Sisyphus happy, as Camus has it, and find reasons to be alive. Hers is the quest of the doomed knight of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, who finds his answer in a bowl of milk and some wild strawberries, offered by strangers. As I said, she finds her sense of meaning in a different places to the Knight, but her commitment to answering the question of why life is worth living is commendable, funny, and despite her opening threats to our sense of well-being, and returning to Nietzsche, life-affirming.
I want to return now to the idea of whether I am going to amend my ‘lecturing is like stand-up’ position. While nothing has been settled here as to how to be a better lecturer, I have resolved (though it sounds a bit corporate-development-culture-ish) to talk to a stand-up comedian about learning and teaching, and perhaps ask them in to work with colleagues. Moreover, I think reflecting on the performativity of pedagogy isn’t limited to passive sage on the stage (sorry!) practice. Those of us in Higher Education would do well to note how widespread in the comedic world the ability to get audiences to think and engage is. Does that mean we are in the edu-tainment sector (a term whose usually derisive deployment I am less bothered by than many more stern colleagues)? I don’t think we have ever been anywhere else. I was fascinated to see that stand-up Iszi Lawrence was working with academics in 2018 in order to make research more accessible, and be involved in a Science-Comedy night, but what I want us to ponder is what we might learn to transform our core teaching practices.
There are concerns that I think need more sustained interrogation, such as who can ‘get away’ with humour in the current University system (it helps to be senior, and male), as Tait, et al, in Laughing with the lecturer: the use of humour in shaping university teaching discuss when examining the use of humour and teaching personas in this context in their Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice article^^^, but I not so interested in how these refections make us funny, or even that entertaining, but how they make us reflect on being engaging, via being actively engaged with the room at hand. Nonetheless, I am not ashamed if students enjoy my teaching, as long as they learn, I learn and that we use the classroom to think reflectively, and imagine how all this learning changes things, helps the world, and helps us be better human beings. Given such a grand set of utopian goals, I think educators should take help from wherever they find it, including from Australians under cheap bedsheets.
+ The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement… …The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving’ Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil,
* Alison King. From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. College Teaching, Vol. 41, No.1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 30-35, p.35
**Note: Trying to make this better is my actual job, so flagging it as noble is clearly self-serving; it is also true.
^I know this is a slightly prudish word, but there is something rather gratifying in it too. A sense of the sexually explicit as fundamentally linked to the physicality of being embodied animals, walking the ground.
^^Something about my 4am worry and regret. I tried to say something about worrying that I’d had children in such a broken world. It came out more like me saying I’d regretted having kids (I don’t, kids!), and the got-or-considering-young-children audience looked at me like I was a monster seeking a cheap laugh. Luckily they moved on from this truth promptly as the show’s pace swept them along.
^^^ Tait, Gordon; Lampert, Jo; Bahr, Nan; and Bennett, Pepita, Laughing with the lecturer: the use of humour in shaping university teaching, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 12(3), 2015.
$ Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus. p.11 Penguin, London, 1975