The Role of Scientist as Entertainer

by e_e_evans PhD student

A poetic prologue: 

BLAZING FRUIT
(or The Role of the Poet as Entertainer)
by Roger McGough

During dinner the table caught fire.
No one alluded to the fact
and we ate on, regardless of
the flames singeing our conversation.

Unaware of the smoke
and the butlers swooning,
topics ranged from Auden
to Zefferelli. I was losing
concentration however, and being
short on etiquette, became tense
and began to fidget with the melting cutlery.

I was fashioning a spoon
into a question mark
when the Chablis began to steam
and bubble. I stood up,
mumbled something about having left the gas running
and fled blushing
across the plush terrain of the carpet.

The tut-tut-tutting could be heard above
the cra-cra-cracking of the bone china.

Outside, I caught a cab
to the nearest bus stop.
While, back at the table,
they were toying with blazing fruit
and discussing the Role of the Poet as Entertainer,
when the roof fell in.

(poem from Holiday on Death Row by Roger McGough (Jonathan Cape, 1979).

 

I tried to resist titling this piece “The Role of the Scientist as Entertainer” but it still feels most apt even if not the best, not least because what I’m going to talk about is less the scientist as entertainer than the lecturer as entertainer. But, the Scientist as Entertainer invokes something of the theatre and flare of the old public lectures given by distinguished scientists of the Royal Institution, the class room lectures with standing room only, where the charisma of the speaker is somehow still eclipsed by the science itself.

But this is not the image of the modern lecture or even, to be honest, the reality. Although I defy anyone to try and fall asleep in Nottingham University’s famous Thunder and Lightening lecture, the lectures of undergraduate courses? That’s often a different matter.

A key question to begin with would probably be what is the goal of a lecture? In the case of an undergraduate course it would appear that the primary task is to impart knowledge within a framework whereby the student can pass their exams and obtain a degree. This is in contrast to what could be considered the goal of the RI’s Christmas Lecturers (as an example) who’s primary goal appears to be to open up people to new ideas and enlighten but no necessarily to teach. Even if teaching does occur it is not structured and cannot readily lead to a complete understanding of a topic.

The question is then, can there be an overlap? Can structured teaching be delivered through the means of the sort of skills and showmanship employed by those who give public talks?

I support one key area that is always missed out in public lectures is the “dry stuff”. The grunt work that is needed to properly understand and build to big ideas is glossed over in favour of surface explanation so that the “big idea” can be understood if not necessarily digested to the point that it can be built into true knowledge. But then what exactly is “dry stuff”? Is it possible then to turn “dry stuff” into equally engaging information?

One of my favourite lecturers from during my undergraduate degree was an brilliant performance lecturer. She always recorded her lectures as podcasts which made revision a joy because I could basically follow along on her lecture slides and sit through her entire lecture again. In the first year she taught us geological hazards and her lectures were always peppered with anecdotes, quips, asides, references to her own research and more. Now you could argue that geological hazards is a pretty fun subject to cover but within it was some serious science too. There had to be, it was a degree course after all!

In the second year she taught us part of geophysical methods which was a far more technical and meaty module than what she taught us in first year but it was still engaging and interesting. She also started several classes off with showing us some resent seismic data she had received from a fracking site that she was working on to illustrate the issues of pin-pointing earthquakes within the crust.

One of the other things that I loved about her lectures throughout my time as her student is that she opened up a world of scientific debate and intrigue. She taught me to question, to be skeptical and to always check the saturation values on a colour map of data. She was the one who taught me that a straight line on a log-log plot didn’t mean a necessarily linear relationship between variables as anything plotted on a log-log graph produces a straight line. She highlighted how the slightest change in starting conditions can create either stable, chaotic or short lived systems. She is probably one of my biggest scientific influences despite the fact that she holds controversial scientific views and is considered by others in the scientific community with skepticism not least because she switched from one side of a particular debate to the other with a level of humility rarely seen in academic circles. She recognised that the theory didn’t fit the facts so she went in search of new theories. She grabbed my attention from day one and it didn’t let go. But I somewhat digress!

 

Recently I was made aware of the following quote by Michael Faraday, venerable Royal Institution member:

DQeCcFiWsAAPZxx

Borrowed from https://twitter.com/dallascampbell/status/938862489978179584

Perhaps this speaks into the crux of the matter. It is not the content but the character delivering the content that matters.

Patrick Stewart reading PTA minutes will always be engaging where as that boring bloke you met at a family get-together that time reading the opening soliloquy from Richard III will be the most painful experience in your life.

Capture

Yes, this is a picture of Patrick Stewart reading the minutes of the last PTA meeting. To see it in its original context click here for a Zero Punctuation episode about Dishonored (apologies in advance for excessive swearing in the linked content)

 

I mentioned in my previous post that I have been teaching seminars on professional engineering skills. It’s been a battle to make the content engaging, let me tell you. For one, it’s been difficult to fully express the value of covering things like reflective thinking and CV writing so early in their degree and the other stuff, academic integrity especially, has felt like I’m already punishing them for a crime they haven’t committed by subjecting them to such dry material. I tried my best, I really did, but I am early in my teaching career so I know that it all probably sounded like the very definition of “being lectured to”. Not everything in life is fun and games (if it was doing the washing up and hoovering certainly wouldn’t exist) but I did feel bad that they were potentially going to miss out on future important information because I had bored them previously. (Although, as I say, not everything in life is fun and games and sometimes the bitter pill is good for you).

So, in conclusion, what is a lecturer’s role as entertainer?

I think at the end of the day there is no way to please everyone with a lecturing style but I do know that you will always remember more when you were engaged and it seemed like the lecturer enjoyed the topic they were speaking about and had a full understanding of it.

So, since I am not an authority on all this I can only advice myself, and I suppose my advice to myself would be as follows:

  • know what you’re talking about
  • enjoy what you’re talking about
  • speak passionately about what you’re talking about
  • remember Michael Faraday’s advice (including dressing smartly)
  • oh, and a quip, joke or funny image to break the tension is handy

 

Epilogue:

The reference to Richard IIhas given me an excuse to use one of my favourite memes:

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The author of this article can’t quite believe that term is over…. except she knows it’s the case because another pile of marking has landed on her desk. 

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