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Stand-Up or Fall Down! Pedagogic Innovation, the Comedy Club and the Seminar Room

Kevin McCarron

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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, HE’s extravagantly delayed involvement in the market place, and student retention.

Author Bio(s)

Dr Kevin McCarron is Reader in American Literature at Roehampton University, London, UK. He has published a number of articles in scholarly journals and has contributed chapters to nearly fifty books on subjects including tattooing, cyberpunk, popular music, dystopian and utopian literature, drug addiction, alcoholism, and blasphemy. He is the author of William Golding (1995; second edition 2006), The Coincidence of Opposites (1996), and he co-authored Frightening Fictions (2001), a study of adolescent horror narratives. In the UK he is also a well-known stand-up comedian and is currently writing a book entitled You Won’t Have Heard This One Before: University Teaching and Stand-Up Comedy. In 2005 he was awarded a Teaching Fellowship by Roehampton University for his work in employing techniques and strategies learned from performing stand-up comedy in his own teaching, and also for designing and convening training courses based on stand-up comedy throughout the School of Arts.