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Laughing all the way to class -- WATE PGR Perspectives

Using stand-up in micro-teach scenarios

We all get nervous, especially when it comes to job interviews. ‘Micro-teach’ scenarios, short teaching auditions, are becoming more and more a part of interview processes. So, how will your session stand out from the crowd of candidates?A slideshow with the title of the session

Funded by a Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence for Postgraduates who Teach, Roxanne Douglas, in partnership with James Evans of Vensa Coaching, held ‘Laughing all the way to class’ in May 2019. The session comprised of an interdisciplinary group of participants from across the Arts and Sciences, who workshopped ways of using stand-up comedy techniques in teaching scenarios, particularly to confidently own a room in a ‘micro-teach’ scenario using the principles of the so-called ‘tight 5’.

A ‘micro-teach’ could be a 5 to 15 minute sample teaching session that a candidate might be asked to complete as part of the interview process for an academic job, or it could be a short section of your existing teaching within a session to create a punchy way of delivering a particular principle or idea. In the world of comedy, a ‘tight 5’ is a 5 minute, or sometimes shorter, set that a stand-up comedian will use in open-mic nights or in a showcase. In both scenarios, the speaker needs to stand out from a crowd, where the audience may have seen several others and may even be battling disinterest and boredom. In either case, the speaker needs to quickly get a group of strangers on their side and be able to solicit a positive emotional response. The fact of the matter is that laughter is a very powerful tool: it relaxes people, and it makes people more positively disposed to you.

So how do we use laughter, and other aspects of the ‘tight 5’, productively in short teaching scenarios?

RoxanneWe started by discussing some of the differences between teaching and stand-up comedy. For instance, we might not always want to be preaching to an audience in our teaching, and we should never be trying too hard to be funny. The point of this session at its core wasn’t actually about being funny while teaching, but about soliciting a sense of connection quickly and developing a sense of confidence in the material that the participants were about to deliver.

The participants discussed short clips of well-known comedians, in particular how they used information, what they held back and what they exaggerated, how they draw from familiar or common experiences; how they used their voice and their body language; how their timing has been carefully prepared but feels natural; and how they develop a performance ‘brand’ or persona. It’s important to remember that there is no one way to deliver comedy, or teaching. For instance, the exuberance of Michael McIntyre would not work for the slow and cynical stylings of Jo Brand, so the outcome of this discussion was about polishing whatever is unique about ourselves and what we bring to teaching.

We workshopped skills in introducing yourself and your style quickly, developing a narrative that a ‘micro-teach’ audience can buy into quickly, timing, and managing audience engagement. These skills would also be applicable to conference papers, and longer teaching sessions. The participants then put these principles on their feet by devising their own ‘tight 30-seconds-to-2-minute’ microteach sessions on a variety of nonsense topics such as ‘Curtains or blinds: The debate that followed the war’, ‘How cardigans changed everything’, and ‘The question of questions’. The purpose of this exercise was so that the participants could focus on managing nerves, introducing themselves and their topics effectively, and managing the short time slot. Despite being told that these 30-second segments didn’t have to be funny, the participants excelled at using the techniques that the session had bought up. The participants were highly supportive of one another, and each participant showed different styles of delivering the content based on their own personality, teaching style, and academic discipline. It was useful to see how humour and stand-up performance techniques created a relaxed and supportive environment within this workshop, and to see this from the perspective of participants from across faculties and disciplines.

One of the outcomes of the discussion was how useful it was to think about teaching alongside performance, and to have someone like James from a non-academic environment to think about the ‘human factors’ of teaching: such as what mood your assessors and ‘micro-teach’ audience might be in, as well as one’s own relationship to the performative aspects of teaching, such as managing nerves, as well as bringing aspects of your self to the teaching environment.

The session underway, James presents

Feedback for the session was overwhelmingly positive: the mode of participant ratings for all categories, including ‘I feel motivated to implement the ideas covered in the workshop’ and ‘I would recommend this workshop to colleagues’, was 5 out of 5.

Comments included:

  • ‘I think by inviting James to come and collaborate with Roxanne is a very good and refreshing aspect of the workshop. I do think their collaboration helps to tailor the aspects of teaching and stand-up comedy and make it very fresh and enjoyable. In the end, we could really get something very useful and practical for our teaching. […] The last session of doing stand-up is also a very enjoyable and really good aspect to practice the techniques you just learned’.
  • ‘I will think about things like narrative, call-backs, pauses and introductions a lot as I design my lessons moving forward. It made me feel quite good, and I was glad to get the feedback telling me what strengths I can lean on’.

Alignment to UKPSF: A1, A4, K2, V4

Roxanne DouglasRoxanne Douglas is an Early Career Fellow with the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Warwick, and she has taught across English and Comparative Literary Studies, the Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL), Liberal Arts at the School of Cross Faculty Studies, and Warwick Law School.

James EvansJames Evans is a stand-up comedian and corporate public speaking coach, and a Warwick alumnus.