Monday, December 10, 2012

Kill Your Powerpoints and Teach Like a Pirate

English: Jean Baudrillard in 2005
Jean Baudrillard in 2005 (Wikipedia)
by Dr James Arvanitakis, Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at University of Western Sydney, The Conversation:

Despite my university title, I’ve always thought that someone, one day, will discover that I’m not a “real” academic.

This hasn’t been helped by the fact that when it comes to teaching, I’m by no means a traditionalist.

Over the years, colleagues within my institution and beyond have accused me of everything from dumbing down what I teach to being more of a talk show host than an academic.

They insist that students read the “sociological classics” - and if one in five fails as a result of this approach, so be it.

But last month, I found a way to tell these critics to, in Bart Simpson’s words, eat my shorts.

At a ceremony in Canberra, I was surprised to be named the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year Award. While the Prime Minister’s Award is a significant public recognition, even more important is what it represents - that trying new and unconventional teaching methods is not just a nice idea but a real way to engage students and help them learn.

Trying something new 

I spend much time reflecting on how to get the best out of my students - even if it means dancing at the front of the class. And I have found that unconventional teaching methods work far better for first year students than many old techniques.

The safe option is to put together a bunch of PowerPoint slides with quotes from thinkers like David Harvey, David Held and Jean Baudrillard. These are inspiring and insightful authors that have a lot to offer. But while I find these authors interesting, they can also be dense, and for first year students their discussions and examples can seem remote and often irrelevant.

As a lecturer, it is hard work to keep the students engaged, and the success rates are dependent on the cohort, time of semester, the assessment requirements of other subjects and even bad weather.

Chaos in the classroom

Five years ago, I began trying a radically different way to teach the concepts of chaos theory.

Instead of just talking, I start the lecture with a number of body percussion exercises - 400 students loudly clap and strike their bodies in time with each other. I explain how much like a 4/4 beat followed by a ¾ beat, certain processes in our globalised world are actually in-sync, and can be relatively easy to identify.

The next stage is to then perform a “flash mob” with about 100 students at the front of the lecture theatre. After briefing the students on what to do, they come to the front of the lecture and perform an exercise that requires them to stand equally distant from two people within the “mob” - with those two people having no idea they are about to be mimicked.

The effect is amazing: as one person moves, the various people that are mimicking this individual also move, and the waves of action spread through the group as the ripple effect multiples. It is a demonstration of how we are connected in a ways that we often do not see, how such relations are often not obvious and are impossible to foresee.

Once this knowledge has been established, it is possible to introduce the work of theorists like Harvey, Held and Baudrillard in ways that the student cohort can relate to.

I follow such lectures up with a specifically made YouTube video, written materials, newspaper articles, Facebook interactions and, of course, scholarly readings.

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  1. You do realize that in the future quoting Bart Simpson will be regarded as the earmark of a die-hard intellectual . . .

    1. Ernie,

      Very amusing! Yeah, today it's Baudrillard, tomorrow Simpson!

      Cheers and thanks for reading,


  2. Greetings,
    I am in awe of what I read here - and I am so happy to have stumbled upon your work. It is refreshing to read your blog and hear about other professors who have taught because teaching is what counts, not the many other things academics are expected to hold as important.
    I look forward to reading more,

  3. Greetings,
    It is refreshing to hear of a professor who operates somewhat outside the proverbial box. Thank you for the inspiring thoughts you share here on this blog. I look forward to learning more.