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Those who can improvise, do; those who cannot, teach

April 19, 2018

This blog occasionally alludes to my fondness for improv comedy.

It’s mostly wrong to think of a classroom lecture as a “show,” and I mostly avoid pre-planned jokes. Every so often, though, a classroom discussion will take a spontaneous turn toward the delightfully bizarre.

Earlier this week, I was trying to explain how post-synaptic neurons “decide” whether to conduct action potentials based on the aggregated input of multiple pre-synaptic neurons, some excitatory and some inhibitory. In the heat of the moment, I attempted an unplanned analogy.

“It’s like, you’re trying to decide whether to go out with this guy,” I began. “One friend is whispering in your ear that you should stay away from him — and another friend is whispering in your other ear that you should totally date him!”

“But,” a student pressed, “Why are these ‘friends’ saying different things?”

“Well…” I paused. The analogy was quite possibly outliving its usefulness, but I forged on. “It’s because these friends heard different things from THEIR friends! Somebody told your first friend, ‘Hey, I saw that guy SMOKING CRACK the other day! He’s bad news!’ And somebody else told your second friend, ‘That guy is the best. I just saw him SAVE A PUPPY!'”

It wasn’t necessarily a moment of great teaching, or great comedy, or great anything. But, at a minimum, it was fun to see what my subconscious came up with when pressed for traits that make men desirable or undesirable as romantic prospects.

In invoking puppies, I reminded myself of another memorable moment, four years earlier. A student was trying to imagine a research study that wouldn’t get funded due to ethical concerns and/or bad publicity. “No government agency would want to be known as the office that supported a study on…” She sputtered for a second while her mental search engine churned. “…A study on, say, kicking puppies.”

A study on kicking puppies? Had I heard that right? Yes, she said. She seemed embarrassed, but I cracked up. Kicking puppies is not funny, but the idea of a committee debating the merits and risks of puppy-kicking research? Brilliant!

I congratulated the student on her vivid example, and then reluctantly returned to the day’s agenda.

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