Instructor Insights

Experiencing the Large Lecture as Theater

In this section, Professor Patrick Winston describes how teaching a large lecture class is similar to rehearsing for and performing theater. In particular, he describes the social covenant that sets the expectation for the performance, the hours of preparation that go into developing the lecture, his practice ritual, his use of music to energize himself and the audience before the performance, and the amount of time it takes to “come down” after an adrenaline-fueled teaching experience.

The Social Covenant

When you have more than 30 or so students in a room, you no longer have a class, you have a lecture. When you have upwards of 100 students, you have theater. It’s a kind of social covenant. When people see that there are a lot of people sitting there with them, there’s an expectation that they’re going to see a show. It’s reasonable to expect this. When teaching more than 300 students, as I am this semester, they have a right to expect that you’re prepared. So the lecture ends up being a kind of performance. It’s not exactly like Hamlet, because the lines are extemporaneous, but they’re very well-rehearsed nevertheless.

Preparation and Rehearsal

Like most faculty members, if I haven’t taught a particular lecture before, it takes me between twelve and eighteen hours to prepare for one hour of teaching. That’s presuming you don’t have to write any software to support the lecture, in which case it can take a week. It takes a while to get that basic structure together.

Then I like to practice the lecture at the blackboard I’ll be using for teaching. Somehow I feel more comfortable working it out on the blackboard than I do on a piece of paper. This is something I do each morning before giving a lecture.

"I like to play rock and roll music in the room as students are entering the lecture hall. I usually select something from the Rolling Stones, because it’s the kind of music that gives me an edge and energizes the audience."
— Patrick Winston

It usually takes an hour and a half or so to get through what I want to do during my rehearsal because I’m not going through it at a linear speed. I’ll go past some of it faster than real time and at other points I’ll stop and think about how I really want to present the information to students. Nothing might happen on the board for ten minutes because I’m thinking about whether or not I really want to present the information in that particular way, what I’m actually going to say, and so on. I’ve never been able to practice out loud. But I do sort of talk to myself as I go through this preliminary ritual of practice.

The Adrenaline-Fueled Performance

Then there’s the issue of how to get your adrenaline pumping before the actual performance. I like to play rock and roll music in the room as students are entering the lecture hall. I usually select something from the Rolling Stones, because it’s the kind of music that gives me an edge and energizes the audience. When the music stops, everybody knows the performance is about to begin.

I always try to choose music that’s in some way, even invisibly, related to the topic. For example, we have a topic in artificial intelligence called constraint satisfaction problems. What else could you play, but the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”?

Coming Down after a Performance

It takes me about an hour to really come down after the adrenaline rush that accompanies a teaching performance. I’ve talked with my friend, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, and I asked him if he experiences a similar phenomenon after his performances. He said that it takes him about four hours to return to a calm state after a performance. Teaching, it turns out, is not unlike entertainment.

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