Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

31 Jan 2001, 2:50 a.m.

Learning to Teach; and, Comedy as Power

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Okay, continuing my ramble (not 'babble,' one hopes) on career, temperament, teaching, comedy, and talent.

During the week before my fifth comedy show appearance (it was Saturday, 27 January, in 145 Dwinelle, and I was that Indian female who made the jokes about Russia and Fruit Roll-Ups), I wrote a comedy act, a four-minute comic monologue. A few days ago, I wrote the lesson plan that I'll be using today. How similar the processes are!

What do I need to say? What's the best order in which to reveal each piece of information to the audience? Is this the premise or the surprise conclusion? For it is so true that "Teaching is one-quarter preparation and three-quarters theater." Drama is the seductive element in the best classrooms I've ever experienced. What's next? The students want to know.

I'm not going to claim that I'm an outstanding teacher. I don't think I am. I do think that I'm getting better each semester that I teach. And I think that I've been getting better at my comedy, too.

Preparation is really key. I have to think through the entire class and topic. What do I want my students to know or understand that they didn't before? What is the really interesting question here? Why is this relevant? What examples can I use to make abstract ideas more concrete? How does this lesson work in the overall plan of the course? (And it really should be a course; as surely as the course of a river carries the water in its current, the class should carry the students to some new destination. I want my students to have some new synapses in May that they didn't have in January.)

And I have begun to understand the importance of presentation. I used to be ideologically opposed to applying any effort towards the appearance or style of things. My clothes generally reflect that principled energy-conservation. But I am beginning to behave as though it were all of a piece, the content and the style in which I present it, just as the thoughts in an essay require an elegant and coherent organization into paragraphs and sentences.

I can facilitate laughter by arranging the joke a certain way, by placing a particular joke after its analog, by imitating accents, by speaking clearly and using tonal variation. I can facilitate learning by arranging the chairs a certain way, by taking on the tropes of authority in my behavior, by making clear my expectations. I use ordered lists and headings in my syllabus; I use the premise-setup-punchline-punchline-punchline mold in my jokes. It's all about communication, connection, and the tools I can use to get the message across.

I do a lot of unusual, attention-getting things. I teach, I do stand-up, I advertise my class by barking on Sproul Plaza (in the manner of circus publicists), I regularly wear a Linux pocket protector. A dime-store psychologist or a talk-show host might trace this behavior to my past, and say that I do these things because I feel insecure, because I didn't get enough praise as a child, because I always felt as though I weren't in the "in-crowd." And yeah, I can see some of that.

But maybe some of us are just evangelistic by nature, outgoing, friendly, "leaders," and that's not a bad thing, just a temperament, a trait. A trait is what you make it. I'm a born star, you're extroverted, he's a showoff, to paraphrase (I think) W.C. Fields. I think I just really publicly influencing groups. Political science is the study of power, and I'm a political science major. What is power? It's a meme. And I long to construct and spread a really influential meme, the meme heard 'round the world.

Poll: Most influential meme

  • God
  • Writing
  • Asherah
  • Individualism
  • Clocks
  • Fire
  • Other

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at