The talk that had the most influence on me at the 2012 DePaul Faculty Teaching and Learning Conference was one given by Dean Corrin entitled “Research as a First-Person Video Game”. The title was misleading, but the content was excellent. He detailed his work developing a course on immersive theater experiences, for example, what you find at theme parks and museums. One of the things he does on the first day of class is transform the course into a theme park experience, complete with lines, tickets, sectioned-off seating, photos, and, most important here, a video of him presenting the “institute” under which the course will be organized. He didn’t show the video, but he said he plays the character in it as overly uptight and serious. One of the questions I had for him afterward was about the value of playing the fool, because I’ve found that there are some hidden benefits to purposefully making fun of yourself in front of students.
My background is in theoretical computer science, and my Ph.D. thesis is a serious of proofs. But I’m miserable at basic arithmetic. Typically the introductory programs my students write or the discrete math my students do involves some amount of arithmetic, so rather than stress over getting it wrong (which I will at some point, sooner rather than later) I tell them that I can’t do arithmetic and force them to do the math. I admit that I often exaggerate it, making them do things like add single-digit numbers for me. In addition to relieving me of having to try to do arithmetic, it also encourages participation. But I’ve found that it does more than that. I think that it bridges the distance between me and the students, reducing the intimidation they feel. If a Ph.D. in theoretical computer science can’t add two-digit numbers reliably, it’s ok for them make mistakes on their programs.
When I asked him about it, Dean agreed that it would make sense that playing the fool would serve to (partially) narrow the gap between faculty and students, although I don’t think that was his goal in making the video. Of course, I believe you have to be genuine in the flaws you share since students easily see when you’re pretending. But all faculty, being human, have enough flaws that it’s not too hard to be genuine about foolishness.