Funny Business – what I learnt from doing stand-up comedy as a lecture

So I tried to do stand-up comedy as a lecture.

So last week because it was my final ever session with my finalists I decided to do something I have thought about previously but never done before – a stand-up comedy routine as a lecture…

The topic was a summary lecture to my digital economy module so covered material such as useless apps, theories on the development of technology and the problems of researching the digital economy from your office when every bit of research can lead you down a dark hole…

What I learnt

Stand-up is really really hard – it’s feels superficially similar to a lecture but it is very very different with its own pace. To complicate matters I needed the material to be funny but academically rigourous (thus a lengthy digression on how the technological deterministic perspective of history was wrong because men’s obsessions with their genitals actually drives society).

Now on the day I was very very nervous,because I had no idea how this would turn out, which the students picked up on (because I don’t get nervous).

I did the session and there were aspects that worked and some that did not work. If I every did this again, I’d lengthen some of the material and cut some other stuff.

What I really learnt

Here’s for me is what was really interesting about the experience. Over the following week, I received a number of emails off students who were concerned that I would be put off trying something like this again or simply wanted me to know that they appreciated me taking the effort to do something different. Some had suggestions for changes and others had ideas for theoretical concepts I could weave into my material !

This reminded me that it sometimes feels as if HE is something done to students bit really it’s a process of becoming – where something new – a lecture, a lecturer, a student are formed from the interaction between individuals, the experience of Higher Education and the organisation that mediates that experience and interaction.

So the lesson for me is that my becoming a lecturer is never over, it will keep shifting and changing over my career. That has to involve a level of risk and challenge, the sort of risks taken by trying to do something in a new format and the sorts of risk that we ask students to take all of the time when we assessment. The challenge that we ask graduates to rise up to when they take their next step.

I got bored of lecturing so I quit.

Well not entirely. One of the issues that I don’t see much discussion of in the academy is boredom, like refusing to work for free, it seems to be a topic that is taboo. The simple truth is I’m bored of lecturing, very very bored.

The problem is that my student teaching reviews go up every year (they can actually only go down now), I get nominated for a student led teaching award every year and have won twice in the last three years, so clearly this boredom isn’t impacting my actual classroom performance. 

Stagnation will surely occur if I don’t make my teaching fresh to myself let alone my students and then my performance will decline unless I shake things up and try something new rather than sleep-walking through the academic year. 

An opportunity for that shake-up arrived this academic year when I was tasked with teaching a new project management class to 2nd year undergraduates. The class has never run before and therefore has no predetermined format. 

So I started to plan out the course in the normal one hour lecture and two hour seminar pattern and… I just could not face it – and then it struck me, I just wouldn’t bother lecturing and we’d scrap the seminars as well

There is another important aspect to this – the need for students to develop the sorts of digital capabilities that the graduates of 2020 and beyond will need. There is a lot of discussion about the best way to embed this type of skills development into University teaching but to me what is obvious is that teaching students how to use specific technologies is not as important as giving them the space to develop adaptable skill-sets. 

So this is what is happening – I am actually doing a lecture (couldn’t quite get away from them) but it’s pre-recorded and the students watch it every week before attending – the first hour will therefore be us discussing what they saw and me clarifying and providing additional material. Ah but what about the other two hours a week? I’m glad you asked…


There are 30 students in two seminar groups – which is 30 X 2 X 10 = 600 man-hours or 300 hours per group. We lost week one to set-up and week twelve will be project shut-down and a party – yes you heard me, if the projects are successful, we’ll invite the sponsors and have a party – just like the real thing.  

Group 1 is the business school skunkworks:

The Skunkworks will be undertaking a project for an internal University sponsor with the aim of making a meaningful real impact to the University, its students and the people who work in it. Although some projects will be proposed, the members of the Skunkworks will decide themselves which project they wish to take on. You are our applied research wing.

Group 2 is the student led research hub:

The student led research hub will be undertaking a research project with the aim of producing new knowledge. The topic will be discussed and decided by the members of the research hub. You are our pure research wing.

 

The reason that there are two different projects is because if one of the projects appears to be ‘failing’ then members of the other seminar group will be asked to work as consultants to help the other group. 

To facilitate this, we are using real project management software – in this case  Zoho projects. The students will use zoho to monitor the projects and rack up billable hours. 

To get the students use to Zoho projects, we have a 'resources' project where we are discussing what biscuits we want every week. I've never seen a real project team work without drinks, so I'm providing tea and coffee every week. 
To get the students use to Zoho projects, we have a ‘resources’ project where we are discussing what biscuits we want every week. I’ve never seen a real project team work without drinks, so I’m providing tea and coffee every week. 

The use of the software has another function – In theory it is impossible for a student not to contribute because if they not allocated and do not complete tasks to rack up billable hours then they will be unable to complete their assignment because they will have no evidence to support their assessment. 

Every aspect of the projects is controlled by the students – how they allocate the billable hours, how they agree a project scope with project sponsors (if there is a project sponsor) – everything, if they picked a project I actually don’t like – well that’s tough – I only have one rule in my classes, we don’t lie to each other. I told the students they pick the projects and I’d be a liar if I changed that. 

If both projects completely fail, the students can still submit a final assessment because they will talk about the reasons why and compare to more successful projects and underpin that with theoretical and professional perspectives in this area. 

Some issues that have already emerged in the first two weeks:

  • I have had to make signs to indicate that this class makes heavy use of mobile devices. The students are controlling the projects via their mobile phones and we are writing project docs in google docs (on our wifi network, no charges occurred). To anyone walking past the classroom it looks like everyone is messing around on their mobiles, me included.
  • I had to buy a multi-charging station because students devices go flat. 
  • Students are already asking questions like “who owns the IPR?” which is a really good question we will deal with (them) and also is one of the critical questions that underpins the digital economy.

I’ll get into the projects themselves and how its actually going in a couple of weeks. If it all falls to pieces – well we’ll deal with that as well but I have faith in my students, otherwise what the hell are we all doing here?