Life in the Circus

Marc Zimmer analyzes the performances he must make to teach college students.

July 7, 2006

I have never had any circus training. I am as coordinated as a giraffe on roller-skates. My wife thinks I walk like a gorilla, and yet I have been performing as a one-man circus for the last 15 years.

When I got my dream job as a chemistry professor at a small selective liberal arts college, I knew I would have to be on committees and attend many boring and frustrating meetings. I was well aware that I was expected to do research, publish and win grants, but no one told me that in order to be a good teacher, I would have to become more than just a presenter and explainer of facts. I would have to be a one man circus show -- I would have to become the ringmaster, trapeze artist, lion tamer and clown all in one.

When I am not performing in the classroom I am a scientist who likes short lists and discussions that immediately get to the point, so here is a short description of my life in the circus.

The Audience: Most of our students do not yet have the ability to learn new material by themselves; that is why we are teaching and that is why they are taking our classes. The best students will learn, retain and understand the material they are taught in class no matter how it is presented. However, there are many students in the class who do not have the attention span to concentrate for the whole lesson, who get distracted or do not do the required reading because they are simply not interested. It is these students who benefit from the circus approach to teaching. By presenting a series of fascinating, sometimes even death-defying circus acts that convey the content and presentation of our classes such students are hopefully drawn into the subject matter, and do more work outside of class as a consequence of their new found interest.

When I was growing up circuses came in one flavor only. Today there are many types and our students are well aware of this. They might not have been to Cirque du Soliel, but they certainly know of its existence and have probably seen it on TV. As a one-man circus act it is important to know what other circuses are doing and to incorporate some of the best performances from other circuses into your presentation. Pedagogy is continually changing, and I like to check out the competition. Teaching and learning centers, conferences and journals are good places to look, but talking to students to see what makes other classes interesting and perhaps even going to see some of these classes is invaluable. I don’t adopt all the new ideas, instead I try only the things that look as if I can make them work in my class. Circus performers, whether they’re lion-tamers or trapeze artists, must know their own limits and talents, even when they are trying to expand them.

It is also crucial to be aware of your audience. Are they there to see lions and elephants perform, or have they come to see clever contortionists and illusions. As a chemistry professor I know that I have to teach differently to scientists and non-scientists, to pre-meds and environmental studies majors.

The Lion Tamer and the Ringmaster: Before I teach large classes, I often have a recurring nightmare. The show is about to begin and I, the lion-tamer, am the first act. Having done the act a thousand times before, the lion and I know the routine; however we have never been the opening act. The show is about to begin. I send the lion into the ring, where it waits for me, its mouth wide open. I walk into the amphitheater and place my head in the lion’s mouth. The audience doesn’t react; they carry on talking to each other, eating and shuffling around. The lion is getting restless; it is expecting an audience reaction. What do I do? I want to yell out to the audience, "Hey, the show has started. Look at us."

But I can’t, it would upset the lion and he might react by biting my head off. That is when I realize that we were too eager for the show to begin and never waited for the ringmaster, the master of ceremonies, to announce the act. The classroom is no different to a circus act. Especially in large classes I find it very useful to announce to the class that I am about to begin and what will be covered in the class -- "Hey look at me, I am going to put my head in the lions mouth."

The Trapeze Artist: While flying around the classroom the trapeze artist has to remember that he is a member of a one-man aerial show and that it is very rare for college professors to have a safety net under them when they are performing. My advice to a trapeze artist is to put on a great show and if you find yourself falling -- call out to the audience for help, perhaps the students can leap forward and catch you. In my experience, students are extremely sympathetic and forgiving as long as they feel that their opinions are being respected. Show no interest in them or the course, and they will leave you to fall.

The Lion Tamer: Apparently there are two ways to tame a lion; establish a relationship of respect or break the lion's spirit. We all know that breaking the lion's spirit is not the way to go, but what we have to remember is that building a strong relationship between the lion and lion tamer still does not negate all the risk associated with tickling the tonsils of a man eater.

When undertaking high risk teaching activities one should also remember that we have a special audience, it is not only there to learn, but also to evaluate us. I once tried to use environmental chemistry as a thread throughout the introductory chemistry course. Since half my class consisted of environmental science students I went overboard and used only environmental chemistry examples. Although my teaching evaluations were abysmal, many students commented on the fact that they appreciated the fact that I was trying to make the class relevant to them (see trapeze artists). This probably saved my bacon. I put my head so deep into the lion’s mouth it choked and swallowed me whole. Yet I survived the experience and still enjoy taking risks in my classes.

The Clown: Every circus needs a clown, they are an audience favorite. In my opinion every class should be fun; students should find something to laugh about, even in a chemistry class. I have made many dumb and embarrassing mistakes in the lab, ideally I would like to forget every one of them, but for the sake of increased learning I have brought them back into the classroom lecture.

I hate making mistakes, confessing to them and then correcting them. However it is important to realize that we all make mistakes, to have the students realize we are not infallible and to be confident enough in class to accept the mistakes we have made. Use the mistakes as a teaching tool.

Pyrotechnics: No chemistry class would be complete without its version of a fireworks display. Seeing my professors blowing up hydrogen balloons and making foam fountains was one of the reasons I majored in chemistry. Although fireworks are fascinating, the dangers and difficulties associated with their use have limited their incorporation into most circus acts. To the best of my knowledge Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” and chemistry classes are the only circuses to use pyrotechnics. Of course there are many other ways that are just as effective at grabbing our students' attention as fireworks e.g. relating the subject matter to sex.

The Illusionist: Every year I teach students electrochemistry. I know its understanding is fundamental to chemistry; however I find it and teaching it extremely boring. But since a bored circus performer will most likely lead to a bored audience, I have to create the illusion that electrochemistry is fascinating to me. The illusion of my enthusiasm and some relevant demonstrations (pyrotechnics) has to carry the students through the section of work.

The Signature Act: Every circus has an act that defines the circus, a signature act, mine is green fluorescent protein (GFP), a unique and fascinating protein. For the last 10 years it has been the focus of all my research. It can be used to create a mouse with neurons that fluoresce when they are used, a plant that gives off light when it’s "thirsty," or a cloned pig with a fluorescent yellow snout. I have incorporated some aspects of GFP’s chemistry and its uses into all my classes -- incorporating research into the class room is an excellent way to personalize the lecture material and draw students into chemistry and create a connection with them.

Soon my days as a one man circus will be over. Next semester I start a three year stint as department chair. Hello, three ring circus – here I come!



Marc Zimmer is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn Professor of Chemistry at Connecticut College.


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