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Stand-Up or Fall Down! Pedagogic Innovation, the Comedy Club and the Seminar Room
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This paper will firstly outline a number of strategies I have learned over the past decade performing stand-up comedy throughout the United Kingdom, while also working as a lecturer in Literature in an English University. I will then demonstrate how these strategies can effectively be used for teaching, particularly in the seminar room. Although many teachers in HE think of themselves as performers, they are invariably vague as to what kind of performer they are. Actually, the one branch of performance they are connected to most closely is stand-up comedy, irrespective of the comedy in their classes, because only the teacher and the stand-up comedian rely on the continuous interaction between themselves and the people in front of them. The difference between teachers and comedians, on the one hand, and all other performers, on the other, is that the former require the people in front of them also to perform. Many comedians are clearly motivated by a desire to communicate, they obviously set out to teach their audiences something; reciprocally, then, teachers can use comedians techniques with their students.
The quality most highly valued in stand-up comedy is not the ability to memorise a set, no matter how full of memorable jokes; on the contrary, it is the ability to respond spontaneously and flexibly to any situation, comment or indeed audience. This paper will argue that all too often teachers, particularly in the Humanities, are far too well prepared for seminars, which limits the opportunity for students to interact. Excessive preparation for seminars is often a form of control over students, or is done not to teach the students but rather to protect the teacher. I argue for the desirability of learning from stand-up comedians, abandoning any form of lesson plan, and cultivating flexibility and spontaneity in seminars.
This paper will challenge several assumptions central to contemporary teaching in Higher Education, particularly the desirability of smaller classes and the importance of learning students names. In addition, many other issues will be raised, including mixed-ability teaching, heckling, learning outcomes, fee-paying students, the role of capitalism in the ideology and the practice of both teaching and comedy, performative issues, didacticism, truth, the concept of professionalism, the centrality of the body in teaching and performing stand-up comedy, the syllabus and the set list, HEs extravagantly delayed involvement in the market place, and student retention.