I like this new thing of lecturing improv. I feel that it helps the audience stay focused, as they have to keep the structure of the talk in their heads while it’s happening. Also it enforces more logic in my own presentation, as I’m continually looping back to remind myself and the audience how each part fits into the general theme. It’s like a 40-minute-long story, with scene, plot, character development, a beginning, middle, and end.

Yes, sometimes it helps to show graphs or code as part of this, but I can pull that up as needed during a talk. It doesn’t need to be on “slides.”

My overall aim is for a Stewart Lee-type experience. OK, not exactly. For one thing, Lee isn’t doing improv; he practices and hones his act until he knows exactly what’s going where. But that’s a bit different because the standards are higher for stand-up entertainment than for an academic talk. So I don’t need to be so polished.

I’ve also been running my classroom lectures on the improv principle, riffing from homeworks, readings, and jitts and using students’ questions as the fuel to keep things moving along. That’s been going well too, I think, but I need to work more on the organization. When I give a colloquium or conference talk, I’m in control and can structure the time how I want and make sure everything fits within the larger story; but in class it seems to make sense to follow more closely the students’ particular needs, and then I’ll end up talking on things for which I hadn’t prepared, and it’s easy for me to get lost in the details of some examples and lose the main thread, thus reducing what the students get out of the class (I think).

The interesting thing is how long it’s taken me to get to this point. I’ve been giving talks in conferences for just about 30 years, and my style keeps changing. I’ve gone from acetate transparency sheets to handouts, back to transparencies, back to handouts, then to power point and pdf, then to the stage of removing as many words from the slides as possible, then removing even more words and using lots of pictures, now to this new stage of no slides at all. I like where I am now, but maybe in 5 years we’ll all be doing something completely different.

P.S. And here’s an example. It really works!

20 thoughts on “Improv

  1. I used to reserve one lecture per semester for improvisatory, slide-free lectures (but I had a general, written outline of points I wanted to hit). I liked it, and I think the students liked it because they felt freer to ask questions because they were not interrupting what they perceived as a pre-determined “performance”.

    Where I am, though, I’ve gotten complaints about my slides that – say – only have one picture on that I spend minutes talking about. They want text, text, and more text, so they can go back to them later and “study” them. The pressure is for highly structured recitation of material so that the students feel they “know” what they will be tested on.

    I wish I could go back to the improvisatory style of teaching; as it is, I wonder why we don’t just put recordings of lectures.

    • Richard,
      I think Andrew’s post was more about a single lecture than classroom teaching, but classroom teaching is important, so here is a response to your comment “I wonder why we don’t just put recordings of lectures.”

      The “flipped classroom” style of teaching does just this — although the lectures are typically “mini-lectures”. Students are assigned to watch certain recordings before class, then class time is devoted to activities related to the lectures assigned for before class. I haven’t used this method myself, but my impression from colleagues is that some like it and some don’t. One complaint from those who don’t like it is that a lot of the students do not watch the assigned lectures. Another comes from people who have to use lecture recordings made by someone else, that do not fit in with the teacher’s approach to teaching.

      In classes that are small enough (say, 30 or less) I’ve done variants of the flipped classroom, by giving assignments of readings from a textbook together with a “reading guide” as appropriate (e.g., points that are not well explained in the book, or things to pay special attention to) and problems/questions to be prepared to discuss. Then class time is used having students discuss problems and each others’ questions, with intervention by me (e.g., asking leading questions; asking other students what they think of one student’s answer or solution) as appropriate. This has usually worked well (especially when it is necessary to use a poor textbook.)

      • Martha:

        I remember high school classes being like this (without the video). We’d do our reading and homework before class, then during class we’d have discussions and work on practice problems and future homeworks.

  2. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say – I think the experiences may vary considerably (enough noise to make this not a good thing to study). For me, you may be confusing two things: use of prepared materials (especially slides) with impromptu seminars. I have not had much luck with the latter – it occasionally is spectacular but most of the time the lack of preparation and organization shows. I don’t like being over-prepared and value spontaneity. But unless I have been very intentional about what I want to say, the experience usually falls flat. Then I end up feeling lazy and dissatisfied.

    Use of powerpoint is a different matter entirely. I’ve given many presentations and think I know how to give good ones. After following Tufte’s work and opinions for quite awhile, I sent him one of my powerpoint presentations to see if his complaints are really about powerpoint or about poor powerpoint uses. All he said was “lose the powerpoint.” Indeed, my presentations are usually better without the slides – I would make an exception for international audiences where I think the slides help overcome language barriers. But if I am well prepared, it is usually more effective to dialogue and only use visual aids where they are important (as they often are with statistical matters). But the more spontaneous style is more apparent than real – it takes at least as much preparation to do the seminar without slides as with. It is not really impromptu – it does seem more spontaneous.

    So, I think there are a number of ideas possibly being confused in this post and I’ll be interested to see what other people think.

  3. The best times I’ve had teaching classes were the ones where I used large mind maps as a memory aide for the topics and organization. I would make up a 3 ft X 2 ft overall mind map using colored markers, and individual 3 X 2 sheets for the main individual topics. Cross-topic connections were indicated by labeled lines between the topics. Order was indicated by placing the main branches in order clockwise around the map’s central image.

    I could read them from any distance, and the mind maps reminded me of my talk plan. The overall map helped keep me on the main line of the class, and the more detailed ones helped me follow the plan for individual topics. You don’t need much detail in the maps, they are only skeletons that help you connect with all your mental associations.

    You could also make slide versions of the maps and project them for the students.

    When I was done with a topic, I just put that map away (well, ahem, I just dropped it on the floor).

    It’s a fun and effective way to organize a class, and it helps you to recover the thread when you get diverted by discussing students’ questions.

  4. …well, sounds more like show-business technique than education.

    No mention of how the students react/learn from this — aren’t they the focus?

    The lecture method generally is an inefficient communication method in education, but still dominates into this 21st Century.

    Communication requires both a transmitter and receiver(s). Way too much emphasis here upon the transmitter perspective.

    • Garnier:

      My post was about an invited lecture for the CDC. If you think it was a bad idea for me to present this material in lecture format, your beef should be with the people who asked me to do this!

    • What is needed, of course, is evidence-based teaching, and there is precious little of that. And, where it attempts to be “evidence-based” the “evidence” is a bunch of p<.05 B.S. And here, of course, single-subject designs are what should be used. That aside, it is pretty clear that some sort of mastery/move at your own pace teaching is called for. As usual, ol' Fred Skinner pretty much had it correct when he developed teaching machines. Heck, who knows where we'd be right now if it wasn't for the disastrous "cognitive revolution." Mainstream psychology could have become a natural science, instead what you get is mentalism and reification.

      Uncle Glen

  5. I’ve seen you do both — the new style is more conversational which has both the strengths and weaknesses of conversation; it’s more bidirectional but less manageable. So long as (a) the audience manages to get the points you wanted to make; (b) you’re less bored making the points than you would be going over the same slides in the same sequence every time; and (c) you are still in ultimate control (“That’s a good point, but I’m going to cover it in a minute. If I get to the end and I haven’t, remind me.”) then it’s all good. The problem is that the speaker is in control of (b) and (c), while (a) will be highly heterogeneous. Some prefer the old treatment, some the new.

  6. I attended a workshop under the auspices of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (a story somewhat relevant to this blog is here) that was heavily focused on improv / theater methods for science communication. It was excellent. (And they’re not far from you!) Aside from the exercises, one important point was that improvisation requires a lot of preparation to be done well — you can’t meander from the path of straightforward delivery unless you know the landscape so well, you can guide the audience to where you want them to go, and not get lost in the weeds. One point that wasn’t made, but is true, is that this is exhausting. I try to run my classes like this (2 x 2hrs per week), with little “pure” lecture, lots of questions and activities, lots of handwriting, hardly any slides (which are evil), and with a “script” made ahead of time that I don’t read, but that includes guesses as to which paths we’ll take. It works (i.e. students learn more and are more engaged) though I often end up wondering why I bother!

  7. Much more fun for both me & audience if I’m spontaneous and structured around pressing issues and/or questions. Big (for me very big) downside has been preparation. That’s a thread that seems to be running through these comments. if you can’t keep all that in your head and talk at the same time, stick to prepared material.

  8. I really liked the style of your talk on Thursday. It was improv in some ways but also had a discernible structure. I enjoyed figuring out how it all fit together and enjoyed the Q&A throughout.

    In my own work, I do a combination of improv and practiced delivery. In the classroom, I have a structure for the lesson but move around within it. For my talks outside the classroom, I usually write out my words beforehand but make minor changes and additions on the spot.

  9. Thanks for referencing Stewart Lee. But remember that Stew wrote in his books that if he gets to the point where everything is planned, he can’t do it anymore. He always throws in some bits that he can’t predict.

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