March 12, 2003: On the Campus

Teaching tactics

Gone are fusty lectures, now it’s dramatic and compelling

By John Lurz ’03

Illustration by Ron Barret

My second-grade teacher bored me so much that I faked headaches to get out of school. At Princeton, however, I’ve gone to lectures even when my head was splitting, so afraid was I to miss one act in the show that my professors might put on.

There are times when, sitting in lecture, I feel like a member of an audience watching a performance, and I forget that I’m also learning. This was especially the case during English professor Jeff Nunokawa’s explosive lectures on Victorian and fin-de-siècle literature. “Dramatic” is the word for Professor Nunokawa’s lectures; he paces intensely across the stage, gesticulates, imitates characters from the novels, and inserts personal and humorous stories to make his points.

His energy and motion are that of a televangelist. Nunokawa himself makes an analogy between the enthusiasm used by some preachers and the verve he uses when teaching. He’s “converting” his students to the book he’s teaching. To explain this highly dramatic and entertaining lecture style, he brings up the etymology of the word “entertain,” that is, “to hold among, to involve.” By “involving” his students, Nunokawa hopes to impart “some sense that you the student are implicated, that the story you’re hearing is about you.”

His tactics are good. If students are amused and entertained in a lecture, then it is obviously much easier to bring them into an authentic relationship with the ideas being discussed. As Nunokawa says on the first day, “I hope to make you realize that these books matter for what you do every day of your life, and that, if you read and think about them carefully, they might tell you a lot about yourself.”

Although Nunokawa acknowledges that a literature professor has an advantage when it comes to material, entertaining lectures are not an isolated phenomenon of the humanities. In the introductory astrophysics course The Universe, Professor Neil De Grasse Tyson enthralls scores of students for 80 minutes in each of his biweekly classes.

Talking about the birth of stars, the scale of the universe, or how matter radiates energy, Professor Tyson tells jokes, makes real-world analogies, and in an amusing way identifies practical applications of the information. Describing the events that led Kepler and Newton to the formulations of their famous laws, Professor Tyson puts the laws themselves in a historical context in such a way that students not thoroughly versed in scientific principles have no problem grasping their relevance and significance. Tyson’s jocular style and dramatic ambulating (he takes off his shoes, loosens his tie, and does mock-stretches before beginning his lectures) create a relaxed atmosphere, and he mesmerizes students with his stage presence.

History major Annie Kramer ’03, a self-described “science simpleton,” says that “Professor Tyson entertains me. Because he has my attention, I become engaged on a surface level with his ideas. It’s then easy for him to lead me into a deeper understanding of the subject matter.”

Similarly, molecular biology major Elizabeth “E. B.” Smith ’03 describes Professor J. Richard Gott *73, who teaches another section of the same astrophysics course, as “entertaining and accessible, if ever a science professor were.” Professor Gott has pizzas delivered to illustrate what he says about wormholes and time travel. Students really get his point when it’s accompanied by dozens of hot cheese and pepperoni pizzas.

In reality, pizzas don’t accompany every lecture – some lectures are still the simple, straightforward communication of ideas and information from professor to student. History professor Daniel Rogers gives reserved, “traditional” lectures, but they’re not boring. His ideas and points engage students without the fanfare of a flashy presentation.

For all the professors I’ve met, it’s content that counts. Professor Nunokawa notes that, although amusing students is valuable, worthwhile and substantial content takes precedence over entertainment. E. B. Smith agrees. “Some of the best professors I’ve had are amazing not for their great jokes and ‘dance routines’ but because they are so excited about what they teach,” she says.

This combination of professorial wisdom, excitement, and passion, ensures that, armed against headaches with a bottle of Advil, my peers and I attend as many lectures as possible.

John Lurz is an English major from Baltimore. E-mail him at



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