Adventures in Ethics and Science

Neil Sinhababu (aka the Ethical Werewolf) lays out one approach to making an impression in a job interview teaching demo:

Before giving my job talk, N[ational] U[niversity of] S[ingapore] had me give an hour-long presentation to the graduate students and advanced undergraduates to prepare them for the talk and also evaluate my teaching abilities. Since my talk was on the Humean theory of motivation, I taught them about the puzzle involving cognitivism, internalism, and the Humean theory — if you accept all three, you end up having to say that humans can’t make moral judgments, so you’d better deny at least one of the three. I’d planned the talk to include about 20 minutes of student questions, but a third of the way through, the students hadn’t asked me anything.

So I looked at them and tried a trick that I had spontaneously come up with in the previous session of the lecture I’ve been teaching at Texas. I said, “If someone asks a question, and it’s a good question, I’m going to dance.” Amid lots of giggling, a brave young man raised his hand and asked a question — I’ve forgotten what it was now, but it was good, and the students laughed again when they saw me dancing. After that, good questions flowed freely. When students see that their teacher is willing to do comical and mildly embarrassing things to reward student participation, they get the idea that class really is a place where they’re suppose to participate.

I wondered at the time what the NUS faculty evaluating me thought of that stunt. They didn’t express emotion in any obvious way, and it seemed kind of high-risk, high-reward — would I look like a dynamic, exciting teacher, or a maniac?

Neil totally got the job — so you might want to congratulate him. Then you can ask for advice on your own dance moves.


  1. #1 Citronella
    April 20, 2008

    I’ve attended a talk the other day where people (including me!) were actually answering the more or less rhetorical questions of the speaker (“So, what’s wrong with that now?” or “And what do we do here?”). Not because there was an awkward silence and someone felt sorry for the speaker, but because he, somehow*, got the audience engaged. Impressive!

    * I would say it was a combination of his enthusiasm and dynamism and his saying to the guy who entered the room late “Oh, nice, I was just about to present the most important slide of the talk!” that made the audience comfortable and willing to *discuss* with him rather than simply *listen* to him.

  2. #2 John Mashey
    April 21, 2008

    I’ve given lectures at various places in the world (including NUS). There are serious cultural differences in the extent to which students (or even professionals in an audience) will react and ask questions, especially in front of the class, as opposed to coming up afterwards. It always helps to ask the audience early on to get them in an interactive mode rather than a sit-back-and-listen mode.

    The Singaporean reaction does not surprise me too much. I recently id a program review for its Republic Polytechnic, which uses highly interactive, team-oriented Problem-Based Learning. I suspect the folks coming through there may exhibit different behavior patterns. In an 8-hour “class”, maybe 1-2 hours are spent with instructor lecturing. At least 2 hours is kept for Powerpoint presentations by the 5 teams (of 5 students each) of their solutions to the days’ problems.

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    April 21, 2008

    I said, “If someone asks a question, and it’s a good question, I’m going to dance.”

    I like that!

  4. #4 Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde
    April 21, 2008

    No way. Not only would my dancing inspire such pity in the students that they’d be reluctant to ask any more questions, for fear of starting the crazy lady dancing again; also, I’d end up on YouTube as the new Elaine Benes.

    Nice idea, though…

  5. #5 Mark Frank
    April 21, 2008

    I teach professionals to be instructors (mostly IT). I love what Neil did, but you don’t need to be an extrovert or even particularly good with people to get a high level of interaction with almost any audience. There is nothing mysterious or difficult about it – just a little planning. What questions and challenges are you going to give your audience and when? What are the follow-up challenges/questions if these don’t work?

    Once you get into the habit of doing this, the problem becomes the much harder one of managing all those questions.

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