Teaching through the body (c.f. Mauss)
My little brother just started medical school (golly! I still remember changing his diaper!) and he has been telling me about some of his most exciting lectures. I asked him to tell me more about what he thought made for a great lecture, because I’m always trying to figure out how to improve my own lecturing skills, and here’s a little anecdote he told me:
[One teacher] gave us a great series of lectures on the pelvis. He got a round of applause for his demonstration of the female perineum. He had one student squat down on the ground, representing the bladder. Another student stood just behind him in a ski-jumper position, representing the uterus with his bent over body body and the ovaries with his backwards-protruding and slightly drooping hands. The teacher then stood behind both of them and thrust his hands up into the air exclaiming: “I am the rectum!” I will never forget the relative position of the female pelvic organs.
A couple of things strike me about this. First of all, it demonstrates the wisdom of some advice I once got from a great teaching mentor, Larry Rosen, which is that you direct your humor against yourself, not students. This teacher didn’t make a student be the rectum; he took that role on himself.
Second, it’s amazing how memorable you can make something by teaching through embodied experiences. I try to do this in my own classes by getting the students physically involved in lecture concepts — for a lecture on the placebo effect, for example, I do a blind wine tasting of red and white wines at room temperature to make the point that our sensory experiences are heavily influenced by our expectations.
However, I’m not sure whether the reason this bodily demonstration of the female pelvic organs was so memorable just because it entailed bodily movement or if it’s because it was so unexpected, unusual, and humorous. I mean, if medical lecturers regularly demonstrated the positions of organs in the body by having students contort themselves, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so memorable. Maybe it’s the novelty and the humorous unexpectedness of your lecturer shouting “I am the rectum!” that is the real trick to this effective demonstration.
It never occurred to me to use physical demonstrations like this to illustrate physiological processes, but I’m going to have to try this next year in Drugs Across Cultures after the lecture on brain neurology and addiction. So many students get confused about how neurotransmitters work, and I don’t think it helps much that I find it confusing, too, despite the heroic efforts of our psychologist guest lecturer to explain this with pretty colored diagrams. Next year I think I’ll get her to direct a bunch of students to play the roles of drug molecules and neurons and neurotransmitters and act it out. “I am cocaine!”